Notes, Hoaxes, and Jokes: Silkworm's 'Lifestyle'
Throughout the '90s and into the '00s, Silkworm rocked harder and recorded more great albums than anyone. In a sea of diamonds though it is perhaps their seventh album Lifestyle that sparkles most vividly.
Great seventh albums are a rare phenomenon. For a band even to stay together the length of time it takes to create a discography seven LPs deep would seem to run contrary to the fast-burn Dionysian spirit of rock and roll and fly in the face of the plainly difficult dynamics of human relationships. For example, the Stooges in their original incarnation, spavined by chemicals and behaviour that Rasputin might have considered "erratic", were never likely to remain intact long enough in mind and body to reach the exotic sphere of a septenary release. And Simon and Garfunkel only got as far as their fifth album before realising they couldn't stand each other.
These adversities, inherent to the life of a rock band, make the mere existence of Lifestyle by Silkworm remarkable, and the achievements therein nothing short of astonishing. Therefore it is a privilege to say that this glorious seventh album by the Chicago trio of Andy Cohen (guitar), Michael Dahlquist (drums), and Tim Midyett (bass) -- Chicago by way of Seattle, by way of their native Missoula -- will be the subject of this Between the Grooves series. Each week, for the next 12 weeks, we will examine a track from the album, picking things apart, reveling in Lifestyle's joyful weltgeist, bunching our fists, shouting its choruses, nodding our heads, pondering its endless idiosyncrasies, and grinning in full thrall of its giddy intelligence.
There will be close reading of lyrics. This will involve critical imagination and wild speculation, as any discussion of "swim instructor's daughter(s)" inevitably must. There will be consideration of drum fills. This may involve the language of sports such as one may use when discussing home runs or knock-outs or other unlikely physical feats, as any discussion of one of rock's great drummers inevitably must. There will be deliberation upon guitar solos. These will of course not seek to adumbrate or circumscribe the subject for this would be akin to trying to capture the beauty of a spider's web by folding it and putting it in your pocket. In relation to this and all other points, it is not possible or desirable to try to explain a work of art, but hopefully the series will convey at least a twinge of the excitement of hearing this album, offer assurance as to why Silkworm should always be the next thing on your turntable, and explicate more seriously some of the reasons why Lifestyle is significant, why is it as good as rock music gets, and why it is worthy of a place in any canon of popular music.
It is interesting to reflect on the context of Lifestyle within the Silkworm discography. Having begun by stating that great seventh albums are a rare phenomenon, let's consider three of them: the Beatles' Revolver, the Fall's The Wonderful and Frightening World of the Fall, and Sleater-Kinney's The Woods, classic seventh sons and daughters all. They are also albums that are arguably stronger than any of their six predecessors. They are all recognised as landmarks in the careers of their particular artists. We may have arguments about Hex Enduction Hour or Dig Me Out, but both The Wonderful and Frightening World of the Fall and The Woods undeniably represented expansions in the palettes of the Fall and Sleater-Kinney, which positive critical consensus duly acknowledged. Without wanting to annul our series before it has even begun, it is worth noting that this is not the case with Lifestyle. In most senses it is not the culmination of years of gradual technical and stylistic development. Silkworm did not finally, after years of climbing, pull themselves on to the peak of Mt. Rockmore by their fingertips and plant a flag marked Lifetstyle. For while it is a particularly sweet Silkworm album, Lifestyle is one of maybe seven or eight unimpeachably first-rate albums the band made. Starting with their third album Libertine Silkworm went on an almost unprecedented run of consistency; and if one was to be critical, those first two albums are at worst 'very good to great'.
The achievement of such a feat of endurance and excellence suggests something about the fealty and commitment of the band to one another and their art. This might seem a given: Surely any band that lasts for seven albums or more must be built on these foundations? This is not always the case though. Consider two of the examples above. The Beatles operated at a time when bands recorded albums in an afternoon and released multiple long players a year, a crazy schedule compared to today's pop landscape where an album can take years to prink, hone, and focus group test before 'dropping'. In an unprecedented burst of accelerated innovation the Beatles released Revolver only about three years after their debut. Things happen fast when you're smashing atoms. Their recording career was a relative sprint, not an exercise in longevity.
Also, pace the Fall, Mark E. Smith's commitment to the band and his art is unquestionable and long term, but by The Wonderful and Frightening World of The Fall the band had already been through an almost complete personnel change from the line-up that recorded their debut. Even today only one man is ever really sure who is in The Fall at any given moment. By contrast Silkworm's career ran for 18 years, 15 years from their debut single in 1992 to their final posthumously released Chokes! EP in 2006, with one line-up change in that entire time.
So if Lifestyle is 'just' another classic album from a band with unusually strong bonds to one another and a seriousness to their artistic intent which is lifelong, then why choose Lifestyle as the subject of this series? Why not any of their other albums, Firewater or Developer, for example? Perhaps the answer begins with Hiroshi Kimura's beautiful cover art. An aeroplane sits on a runway. A line of people walk across the yellowed tarmac towards its steps, its open door. They are watched by a shorter line standing behind a railing on the balcony of the airport, relatives and friends waving off loved ones as they embark on their journey. It is not air-travel as we know it, certainly not in 2015, with its stresses, shoe x-raying, and air marshals. The ambience is uterine, a tranquil scene in pacifying tones and gently rounded edges. It is a world that draws the viewer into it. Is the destination holiday? Business? It doesn't really matter. The passengers are soon to be moving, travelling to some place, from this scene to another. It is the possibility of newness and refreshment which is intoxicating. When the plane door reopens, they will be somewhere else, possibly some time else. They can even be someone else if the fancy takes them. Above the whole scene, in the softly dissolving sky, in handwritten script floats the word "Silkworm" and below it "Lifestyle".
Once inside -- here briefly and for the benefit of those unacquainted with the Silkworm sound -- certain features of the music become apparent. This is a band who bring the rock. Continents of it. At the same time, both songwriters, Andy Cohen and Tim Midyett, are, as the critic Ian MacDonald elegantly described Paul McCartney, "compulsively fertile in melody". Hooks stack upon hooks stack upon hooks. The lyrics are always witty, clever, and unusual. Another word for "unusual" here might be "poetic", language reconfigured and recontextualised so that it becomes strange and new.
All of this seems very nice, but it still doesn't explain why Lifestyle. Plenty of bands rock. Plenty of bands have tunes. It isn't enough to say that on this album Silkworm simply rock harder, have better tunes, than anyone else. They do, but that's no argument at all. Hopefully this series and the weeks that follow will allow us to get into the detail of this and leave no doubt at all as to why Silkworm and why Lifestyle, but for the time being in trying to explain why the music of Silkworm is so exciting to listen to we return to the opening of the aeroplane door. Richard Rorty describes the project of Proust as one of redescription. On Rembrance of Things Past he writes:
"Proust's novel is a network of small, interanimating contingencies. The narrator might never have encountered another madeleine. The newly impoverished Prince de Guermantes did not have to marry Madame Verdurin: He might have found some other heiress. Such contingencies make sense only in retrospect - and they make a different sense every time redescription occurs." (Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity (1989), p.100)
As Rorty explains, redescription becomes a method for autonomy. By redescribing people from many different perspectives and places in time, Proust subverts the notion there is a single privileged viewpoint to take and is thus able to free himself from descriptions which others have offered of him. This is the sense of freedom conveyed by the songs contained on Lifestyle, an unanchoring from expectation and cliché. The subject matter is so varied and obtuse, and its delivery so vital, that the songs seem to be constantly shifting, their narrators perpetually redescribing their strange situations or, rather, redescribing their situations in strange ways. It is the newness and self-creation at the opening of the aeroplane door. It seems possible that each time one plays Lifestyle it might contain a completely new set of songs.
The sense of contingency, or perhaps the absence of, to use Rorty's term, a "final vocabulary" at work within Lifestyle is encouraged by Steve Albini's recording. The band sound dramatically live, each song the capture of an unrepeatable performance, a single moment in time. Nothing feels certain. Everything is in motion. Traditional rock music often alludes to the metaphysical and the eternal. It strives for the sublime. It borrows rhetoric from religion, casting the rock star as long-haired shaman or golden god channelling the numinous power of Rock, his followers standing before the high altar, arms aloft awaiting high wattage salvation. The music of Silkworm rejects sublimity, its infinity and permanence, as an illusion. Beauty instead is the aim. As Rorty explains:
"Beauty, depending as it does on giving shape to a multiplicity, is notoriously transitory, because it is likely to be destroyed when new elements are added to that multiplicity. Beauty requires a frame, and death will provide that frame." (Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity (1989), p.100)
In this case consider the recording as death, the final framing and ordering of the multiplicity contained within. The thrill of Lifestyle is that it in its redescriptions it recognises and conveys a permanent Now. To a bed of vital, dynamic music the narrators of the songs often look backwards but, just for that instant, we are remembering with them, running through town, lounging on Capri, or in a cadillac outside the Grand Ole Opry. The moment, that world, fills the air and then it is gone. It is this that makes the music of Silkworm so beautiful and exciting.
In the coming weeks we will attempt to grab these moments and examine why Lifestyle is one of the most ceaselessly joyful albums you will ever hear. We will stand on the Higgins Bridge. We will contend with raging bulls. We may even have to run from Motörhead -- that is still up for discussion.