I think about stuff, pretty much constantly. Sometimes I write my thoughts on a blog.
I was talking to a friend a few months ago, and she mentioned that Armchair Apocrypha was her favorite Andrew Bird album. I asked her why, and she essentially said that it was his most complete: every song on it is just good. That really took me by surprise, because, frankly, I didn’t agree. So, I went and listened to the album with fresh ears to see if there was something to what she said. Here are my thoughts:
First of all, the album is produced really differently that his other albums. If I had to describe it in two words, I’d say “washy” and “humbucker.” I don’t think I need to unpack the word washy, and I don’t think I could efficiently explain the word humbucker as a description of sound; I’ll just say that a humbucker is a type of guitar pickup that lends itself to a sort of gritty mellowness, when used the way that it is on the album. The fact that I reference a guitar rather than a violin should say a ton about the album…unlike his usual stuff, the violin is really only used as an accent on most of the album (Imitosis and Plasticities are two of the obvious exceptions, but they’re also both built on material borrowed from earlier projects, so I don’t feel that bad making the generalization). The guitar functions as the main rhythmic drone on the album, along with a lot of really prominent, basic drumming. The vocals are noticeably less tight on this album. There’s a lot of slap-back reverb and space in most of the vocal performances. The effect of all this is, at worst, an Andrew-Bird-esque interpretation of garage rock, and, at best, a sort of anthemic rainy-day music. The stretch of songs to start the album (the first five, from Fiery Crash to Plasticities) has a sort of hollow drone to it. It’s hard for me to connect emotionally to that first stretch, save as a statement of utter disengagement, which I doubt is really intended to be the central tone. It does do wonders for the rest of the album by setting a tonal foundation that can be exploited by the rest of the songs. I also really like some of the tracks individually (Imitosis, Heretics, Plasticities), but the overall effect of the first twenty minutes or so is a little less than I expect from a well-crafted group of songs. However, the transition into Armchairs does wonders for the movement of the album. It’s the first real breath, and it leads into a much more spacious section. This second stretch, from Armchairs to Cataracts, bounces back and forth between contemplation and groove, and it is everything that I wished the first five songs would be. It’s a second interpretation of the instrumentation used on the album, and a more musically robust interpretation in my opinion. There are still prominent drums and guitars, but there’s a lot more space inside the songs for his sweeping strings and meandering vocal lines. There’s even an instrumental transition, The Supine, that gives the album a second chance to breathe before Cataracts. The final three songs, Scythian Empire, Spare-Ohs, and Yawny at the Apocalypse, are an upswing of optimism at the end of the album. There are recordings of birdsong (a la Give Up the Ghost, the second-to-last track on King of Limbs) stuck between the last three songs, and they have the quintessential Andrew Bird quirk-energy that is notably missing from the rest of the album. Yawny at the Apocalypse is not so much a song as an unwinding of the album or a final salute, and it makes the album feel truly complete.
Overall, on listening back to the whole thing as a unit, I was really captivated by its movement. It takes you somewhere. I’ll take the controversial stance that the album has a slow start, but that the textural themes of the album ultimately benefit from developing towards the second half of the album. Armchair Apocrypha is definitely not my favorite, but I’m really glad I put in the time to listen to it again. Sometimes first judgments can keep us from appreciating things fully.
Roller-coaster days are hard, but they bring out the best in people. It’s really hard for me to ask the people I love for help, or even be vulnerable about what’s bothering me a lot of the time. I tend to use vulnerability as a way to progress relationships and build trust, but often I still bottle up things that I’m afraid of or guilt that I feel about a situation. I’m so grateful to be surrounded by people that are helping me learn how to trust others even when I’m at fault or when I’m afraid of rejection. All I can do is marvel at the love that I constantly receive.
Recently, I went on another googling odyssey, this time trying to figure out how to classify the genre that I’d put myself in. I’ve been calling it “indie-folk,” which I think communicates some of the essence of the genre, but is still lacking. It’s really an emerging group of bands, which don’t seem to have any central ideal or unifying front. They’re scattered across age groups, they have signed with labels big and small, and they point to really diverse influences. To give a bit of a picture of who I’m referring to, I’ll give a short list of the biggest movers and shakers in the “genre” in my opinion: Fleet Foxes, Grizzly Bear, Bon Iver, Tallest Man on Earth, Sufjan Stevens, and maybe a few others like Midlake, Dr. Dog, and Laura Marling. There are a lot of threads that run through most of the bands, but I couldn’t find any threads that run through all of them. The partial threads are, as best I can enumerate, as follows.
First, acoustic (folk) instrumentation. Almost every band on the list has had some defining music that was based in acoustic guitar-driven soundscapes. There’s also a ton of violin, used as either orchestration or an alternate lead melody. Banjo, mandolin, and upright bass all make it into the mix…you get the idea. The use of alternate guitar tunings (especially “open D,” aka DADGAD) is also really common throughout the aesthetic. I can attest specifically to Tallest Man, Bon Iver, Fleet Foxes, and Grizzly Bear using open tunings, and I’m sure most of the others have as well. The sound that comes out of open-tuned guitars is fairly unique, and it’s very typical of the genre. There are a lot of doubled or tripled notes, and the tuning can also lead to more uses of sevenths and seconds. The result is a lot of lush, complex chords and guitar parts that move melodic elements through the rhythm guitar. I’ve got a lot more to say about the subject, but I’ll leave it there.
Second thing, there is a real tendency to go in and bolster the really rootsy aesthetic with electric guitars, rock drums, and electronic elements of various sorts. For Fleet Foxes, that means Fleetwood Mac-esque psychedelic guitar. For Grizzly Bear, it means a ton of gnarly post-production, and the addition of electronic percussion and synth (this is even more obvious on the Department of Eagles side project, In Ear Park). For Bon Iver, it means the reframing of the brittle side of emotive indie music into a much more powerful, ambient soundscape full of reference to 80s rock instrumentation. Then there’s Sufjan, who has come out with everything from brittle folk to easy-listening music to deconstructed electronica. The point is that these bands are all drawing lines back into the past, but they are heavily reinterpreting things.
Which leads to the third point: most of these bands have a much more impressionistic, vague bent to their lyrics than their 20th Century analogues. The Tallest Man on Earth is often compared to early Bob Dylan. It’s really easy to draw comparisons from A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall to Into the Stream, but while both are clearly metaphorical, and even metaphors for similar topics, Dylan’s imagery is much more straightforward. The lyrics that Tallest Man spins are veiled in a way that the lyrics of many of his influences are not. Same goes for most every other band on the list. A trend I have noticed, however, is that many of the bands (notably Grizzly Bear and Fleet Foxes) have slowly gravitated toward more comprehensible lyrics. I think that, in a way, it’s a function of maturity as a songwriter. Clarity leads to vulnerability, and vulnerability is especially uncomfortable in art. It takes a truly great artist to baldly state feelings or convictions in a meaningful, technically sound way.
Other, perhaps less important threads through the genre are things like group-singing, heavy use of reverb (especially natural reverb), heavy reference to geographic locations, historical figures, and non-musical art, use of woodwinds, unpolished improvisational passages of music, transitional material that is not in standard song structure, narrative-based songwriting, and non-traditional, tom-heavy percussion.
So, on to my internet odyssey. I spent a ton of time reading or watching any interview I could get my hands on. I read some personal blogs. I watched a bunch of crappy “early versions” of songs recorded at shows on cell phones. And here’s the realization I came to. There was a moment in music that created, in some capacity, every one of these bands. It happened in the 60s and 70s, as the resurgence of folk music was corrupted by psychedelic rock music. Paul Simon, who had led perhaps the most well-known folk duo in history, got interested in African township music. Bob Dylan played an electric guitar and got booed off stage. The lead singer of the Byrds recorded a foundational americana album that featured the undeniable influence of the Doors and late Beatles. Somewhere in that moment, when folk, proto-country, americana, 70s rock, and funk all got mixed up, the foundations for a new genre were born. Oddly, the genre largely sprang into existence decades later, mainly at the hands of people that hadn’t been born yet. It was the result of a cocktail of nostalgia and couter-cultural tendencies, bolstered by the sounds of our parents’ generation, and largely self-sustaining (through labels like Sub Pop, festivals for indie music, and a growing base of people who were tired of what the Billboard charts had to offer).
I think that I’m finally grasping the foundations of that genre that has so enthralled me for the past few years. The exciting part is this: a new generation of musicians has been reared by the genre that I still refer to as indie-folk. That new guard sits not only on the shoulders of the greats of folk and americana, but also on the shoulders of indie-folk. By and large, we find equal influence in Bob Dylan and James Blake, in americana and in hip hop. And now we are beginning to make music of our own, in a context that has never existed before. I’d wager that some of the most amazing, revolutionary music of our time will come from the second-gen indie-folk musicians, and that’s something I can’t wait to hear.
is being able to ask stupid questions that I can’t answer on my own. I used to try and hide the areas where my knowledge was weak, and it was really crippling. I’d sit around being unproductive and hoping that the answer would descend from the heavens to save me. Now I’m learning that there’s rarely shame in baldly asking someone something. It’s the hiding that can lead to embarrassment.
that I’m stuck on for weeks on end. And I feel guilty about them because I’m supposed to think certain things in certain settings. A lot of times my thoughts are questions. And a lot of times the questions are about the truth of things that everyone takes for granted. When you’re in a group of Christians, for the most part it’s not good to question the things we all take for granted. Or maybe you’re allowed to question them, but you’re only allowed to talk about it once you’ve “made it through the desert.” Doubts are private things, but stories about “overcoming” doubt are things to be shared for the sake of encouragement. If you’re not sure that there’s such a thing as Hell, or if you’re not sure that being gay is a sin, or if you’re not sure about the point of large scale missions, then you have two choices: keep it to yourself, or have a bunch of conversations with other Christians who have transitioned into conversion mode. Until I started expressing fundamental doubts to other Christians, I never understood how crappy and annoying it is to talk to someone who doesn’t want to talk to you, but rather feels obligated to convince you of your wrongness. It’s very isolating, and you end up lying and pretending to be convinced so you don’t disappoint the other person.
On the other hand, there’s this second kind of conversation. It’s the kind where you bare your soul, explain you questions, and fully expect the other person to try and convert you…but instead they listen. And then they say, “Wow. I feel that way. I feel unsure. I wrestle with those questions. You’re not crazy.” And those kinds of conversations heal me.
And the thing is, the questions are rarely the point. More often than not, I use questions to protect myself from painful changes. I see the depth of my own inadequacy, and I know I need to bear down and grow, and then I get stuck on some doubt, and a lot of times I use the doubt as an excuse to avoid becoming better. But I’m firmly convinced that the doubts do help us grow. They’re necessary. And when people give us space to work at the questions and wrestle with the gods we think we know, that space is love. That love transforms us.
The last couple of years, I’ve felt God less than any time I can remember. I can maybe think of two times in the past year that I could point to as “emotionally experiencing God.” But I’ve known him more than ever the last two years. And by and large, I’ve known him through the people who have loved me. It’s like this whole time he’s been saying, “you can’t tell I’m here, you’re not sure I exist or care or am relevant to you…it’s fine. You’ll be fine. I love you.” I’ve often cut off the tradition channels of “hearing from God”…Bible reading, sincere meditative prayer, engaging “worship” music…doesn’t matter. He’s here, in those people, in those doubts. He’s not worried about me, I’m not worried about him. I look up to people who don’t feel the need to run away and fight the system and poke ever hole they can imagine in the structures that support them. But I’ve come to terms with the fact that I can’t help feeling that pull, at least for now. I’m not meant to. And I believe there’s a place for people like me in the Church. I just hope that the insiders in the Church can accept us for what we are.
Today I got an email from a friend who is much smarter and more creative and more experienced in music than I am. He was giving me some feedback on my music, and he didn’t just say “this was good” or “this could’ve been better.” He did that a bit, but mostly he just described it. He described it in terms of technical choices, and more importantly, in terms of the emotions it impressed on him. To hear a guy like that talk about my stuff like it’s just some random, legitimate art we were discussing was so encouraging. It’s like he was saying, “I don’t like this stuff because it’s yours, I just like it. I don’t want to talk about things in terms of what needs correcting…this art is complete and legitimate. I don’t see it in terms of correction, but in terms of quality or lack thereof. You don’t get a special measuring stick anymore, because your stuff is real music.” The relief of being taken seriously by someone you respect is truly inexpressible. It means I have reason to keep working.
I’m doing a bit of pleasure reading, since I may not get to do that again for a long time. That’s because the most difficult semester of my life is starting tomorrow. And here’s what I’m reading:
"The empirical rendering of the question [does God exist] may continue to interest the philosopher, and it is no doubt a fascinating conversation to have with friends over a drink. But it is not a specifically theological question when taken in this way. For the believer who passes through the Christian experience, God is no longer related to as an object *out there*. Rather, God is affirmed only through a passionate participation in life itself. This means that we can no longer claim that we know God while hating our neighbor. Those who have taken part in the event of Conversion (participation in Crucifixion and Resurrection) cannot claim to believe in God except insofar as love emanates from them, transforming the world within which they are embedded."
"The God who is with us is the God who forsakes us. The God who lets us live in the world without the working hypothesis of God is the God before whom we stand continually. Before God and with God we live without God. God lets himself be pushed out of the world onto the cross. He is weak and powerless in the world, and that is precisely the way, the only way, in which he is with us and helps us."
What these guys are proposing sounds like heresy. In fact, Rollins agrees. He calls it “the type of heresy that brings us close to the very heart of orthodox Christianity.” It’s heresy in the sense that it defies the idea of doctrine. It defies the idea that we can engage directly with God. It is the idea that we come in contact with God only in the act of loving. He is there “when two or three are gathered together,” not because they summon him, but because he is ever present in their love for each other. The old line “ubi caritas et amor, deus ibi est,” or “where charity and love are, God is there” refers not to a God who seeks out the places where people are charitable or loving, but that God is known by us only in those moments when we exercise our capacity for love. What a thought to cling to as I embark on a new semester, in which there will be little time to slow down and think deeply. I only hope I can begin to embody such a view of God.
and if I could sum up what I’m taking away from today, here would be the summary:
1. We don’t really discuss beliefs often. We discuss intellectual positions. We defend them as if they are our own, but we maintain some sort of subconscious disconnect that allows us to recover from having those positions challenged.
2. Understanding the origin of things really does help us relate to them, solve them, improve them, etc. depending on the nature of the thing. However, I’m beginning to think the whole obsession with the context of things has a lot to do with my personal nature, and is not particularly universal.
3. We spend a ton of our time in denial of truths. In general, this denial is detrimental, even though it is often a supportive structure for our world. Sometimes being aware of the denial is more important than “solving” it.
4. Dodgeball is fun, and my mental blocks about competitive sports are often derived from an overactive sense of shame that I developed in early childhood and never dealt with.
5. Performancism is in fact a word, and a kickass one at that.
6. Loving allows us the freedom to experience God in truth without apprehending God. This duality is central to attaining the deepest sort of satisfaction, because of our nature (in the sense that satisfaction comes in the chase rather than the attainment of the thing being chased, but only when the thing being chased is legitimately within the reach of our abilities).
7. There is an inverse relationship between the amount of phone battery I use up and my contentment with life. Not sure which way the causation points, but I’d guess it goes from contentment to battery life.
That and much more. Sad to think that it’ll all be fuzzy in a few days’ time.
I mean, that’s basically it. It’s all worth the rare moments when hope swoops down on you and carries you away, like a bird of prey that appears out of nowhere. There’s no choice in it, but that’s the magic of it, really. Let me not forget this in all of the dark gritty moments.
I just wrote a song for my dead dog, and again I’m reminded about the power art has to express sadness. I think that, more often than not, that is the healing power of art: it helps us to express our sorrow. It’s not magic.
One of my greatest encouragers told me yesterday that writing is almost always elbow grease, and almost never divine inspiration. I think the same is true of happiness. We get there in short, difficult shuffles, pressing on through the ten-foot-deep snow of sorrow. Art is almost never the summer, come all at once. More often, art is a shovel. It is enough.
1. Grant Wood landscapes.
One for emotional exhaustion, the other, physical exhaustion.
(and I’m inclined to believe that it is, at least in part) then I think that, right now, I’m living a big part of my origin story. No doubt, I’m already engaged in several important, compelling, beautiful stories. But if I had to guess, I’d say that all of this, all my life up to this point, has really just been a part of the setup. The defining conflict in the overarching narrative of my life has not yet arrived. In a way, that makes me really excited. The best and worst have both yet to come. There’s still so much life left to live. So many things to create, so many battles to be fought, so much love to give, that I can truly say I’ve just barely begun. And I suppose that the way I live my origin story now will have a lot to do with the way the main plot unfolds in the future. There’s hope in that, and also a bit of fear and a little pressure. If I squint my eyes, I can just barely make out the upward slope that’s in front of me. And that’s all I need right now.
I recently bought the new Lorde album, Pure Heroine, on a bit of a hunch. I hadn’t listened through the whole thing, but I have been familiar with her music since this summer, and I had been hearing remarkably positive reactions from across the board. After listening through the album a few times, I really am struck by how good it is. I tend to be skeptical of albums that I enjoy the first time through, because I almost invariably get tired of them before long. That being said, while I enjoyed the first listen a lot, I found plenty of justification to keep listening, and I’ve yet to be disappointed by a subsequent listen. The first time through, I was mostly struck by the aesthetics. She’s definitely not one-dimensional, which I appreciate. As far as vocal production and melody go, I definitely hear Lana Del Rey, Metric, Kimbra, and Coco Sumner to name a few. Those are all good sounds, and the mix makes all the elements infinitely better. More than just the vocals though, her beats and her mixing are immaculate. The only exception I can come up with is Team: I think the beat on that song is really underdeveloped. It feels a little bit like she just phoned it in (although, apart from the beat, the overall production of the track is exceptionally good). Maybe the most striking element of the album (aesthetically) is the dynamics of the tracks, especially the transitions between the typically minimal verses and typically thick, saturated hooks. There’s not a single track of the ten that stays in the quiet, nor a single one that fails to provide lulls between the heavy-handed hooks that drive the album. And the transitions themselves are really well-worked. They are often sudden (think Tennis Courts or A World Alone) which gives them a power that is often missing in this kind of music. However, they are also graceful and complex. The brilliance of Ribs is that the verses and the choruses are almost identical lyrically, but the choruses are rephrased with a force and precision that counters the meandering of the verse melody. White Teeth Teens introduces multiple melodic fragments that are all equally qualified to be main hooks, and the trick of the song is the seamless transitions between the fragments (and, eventually, overlapping them). I suppose that, in describing the aesthetic elements of the album, I’ve really strayed into song construction. So much of writing electronic music is about throwing away the grid and introducing musicality into songs that are fundamentally based on structure (I am making the controversial claim that good music inherently contains imperfection or disorder, but I’ll assume that most people can go with me on that thought). Point being: she does this extremely well. At no point do these songs become boring. They are exactly as long as they need to be. If there is a minute left in the song, there is some musical element that has not yet been introduced. She saves a shift in the base beat until the final minute of the song several times on the album (notably on White Teeth Teens, where she brings in a sample that cuts the time in half, and then takes it away after four bars). The slow reveal does so much for development within songs, which in turn makes the whole album feel more developed. I truly think that, even though comparisons to contemporary female electronic artists are easier to make, Lorde might be more rightly compared to somebody like James Blake. Obviously it’s not a perfect comparison, because she’s much more pop-sensible, but her level of craftsmanship surpasses that of Lana Del Rey or Ellie Goulding. She doesn’t write really good hooks. She writes really good songs, which contain really good hooks. That’s where I see comparisons to the true geniuses of electronic music rather than this whole electro-pop movement.
However, none of that stuff is really the reason I like the album. I like the album because of the intangibles. There’s honesty and hope and, yes, attention to detail. By ‘honesty’, I’m partially referring to the immaturity of the music. She’s not trying to be thirty, and that’s refreshing. There are lines about a boy seeming grown up because he can drive, lines about the drama of being in high school. Even more than that, there’s a line, “I’m kind of older than I was when I reveled without a care,” seemingly claiming that she’s all grown up…and she clearly isn’t. That in itself says so much about the maturity of the music. It’s not yet all grown up, and that’s fine. She consistently fails to keep her meaning as close to her chest as most artists do. Many of the songs can be taken at face value. Much of the imagery is obvious, and there are times when she simply skirts meaning in favor of an easy rhyme. But the thing is, the immaturity doesn’t take away. There’s growth in the album. The most compelling development of the album is how the central concept of the album (which I might label “aloofness”) is reinterpreted. At the beginning, the aloofness described (especially in the first three tracks) seems to be derived from self-consciousness. It’s the appearance of aloofness that is important. The first message of the album is self-interested: “never not chasing a million things I want.” By the end of the album, the aloofness is not an end in itself, nor is the central concept self-interested. The pivotal line of the final song is, “you’re my best friend, and we’re dancing in a world alone.” The album ends with the lines, “people are talking, people are talking, let ‘em talk.” The aloofness is still there, but it’s not an end in itself; it’s simply a result of a deep affection. Then, if you’re listening on a CD player like I am, the album starts over, and it begins with the line, “don’t you think it’s boring how people talk?” The album isn’t set up as a circular album; rather, it’s set up with book-ends. At the beginning, the judgement of others is an object of derision, and it’s also a point of concern. At the end, it’s no longer relevant. It’s a much more blatant sort of theme than most, and I love its simplicity. Pure Heroine contains a ton of gaudy imagery and boasting, but it also contains a level of vulnerability that makes the whole thing work. As an album, it’s complex enough to yield new insights with every listen, but it’s also limited enough to be cogent and compelling. Hopefully it’s the first of many well-formed albums from Lorde. Perhaps she says it best herself in the album notes: “I poured my brain and heart into this, and maybe I’ll hate it in two years, because that’s the nature of being my age, but for now, it’s the most powerful thing I can give.”
One note: I’ve treated Lorde as the solo project of Ella O’Connor, but the producer, Joel Little, probably deserves just as much credit. He is responsible for much of the instrumentation, as well as a fair amount of the artistic direction.