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Issue 10 - A Journal of Letters and Life
Godspeed You Black Emperor & New Nick Cave
by Nick Rombes
Author's Links
Lift Your Skinny Fists Like Antennas to Heaven!
A CD by Godspeed You Black Emperor!
Kranky Records, Chicago.

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The Empire is rotting from the inside out, and no one is saying anything about it. But the road to ruin is never straight, and Godspeed You Black Emperor! is one of the more interesting diversions along the way. For those of us who secretly long for the dissolution that precedes revolution, it doesn't get much better than this.
     First: Godspeed is a Montreal group, a nine-piece band whose music is an orchestral swirl of slowly-building noise, guitars, tape loops, strings, and percussion. It's the kind of music that makes your realize how absurd the notion of genre is: are they post-rock? Avant rock? Can what they play even be called "rock" at all? Why does it matter? Wait a few years and you can be sure there will be a new category to hold them in, but right now there is none, and part of the excitement of listening to the band comes from simply trying to figure out what to do with what you're hearing. This is something new, something for which tired old worn out categories don't yet exist. Mostly, you feel like you're in a movie, or a dangerous unauthorized documentary; smuggled footage from some Forbidden place.
     The music is all about the thrill of escape, of trying to get to the other side. The songs come in great big blocks; I guess there are two or three per CD, but are they even songs? Right now I'm listening to what my CD player says is song #2 on the first CD, and according to the fold out chart packaged with the CD it's called "Terrible Canyons of State," or maybe it's called "Atomic Clock." I'm not even sure if it's a song: am I listening to a man or a woman preacher say, "When you see the face of God you will die. And you will become the God man, and the God woman, the heavenly man, and the heavenly woman"? Does this count as a song, or is it merely the prelude to what comes next, a kind of nerve-wracking, Old Testament countdown, building in speed and volume and intensity until I feel guilty for listening. I'm sure something terrible is going to happen.
     Just listen to one of the band members, efirm, in an open letter posted on the internet in response to an interview that he felt harshly mischaracterized the band:

          we made a mistake,
          we did an interview with a liar . . .

     And then:

     Anyone wants to punch holes in our politics, go ahead; you wanna say that we don't properly address the paradox of a "political" band making money off of compulsive shoppers or victims of fetish capitalism--guess what, YOU'RE RIGHT! we haven't properly addressed that paradox at all, and we know it and we kinda know why too . . .

     In interviews, Godspeed is always on the verge of sounding like a cross between Karl Marx, Ted Kaczynski, Johnny Rotten, Patti Smith, Philip Glass, and that crazy English professor you had in college. They use words like "culture" and "fetish" and "alienation" and "simulacra" and "collective." But you don't need to care about any of that to like their music, which keeps flaring up in your face like a fire that you thought was safely out. Just when the cd verges on pretension, it strikes out at you and earns its indulgences.
     I should tell you about the CD art, about the stark, oddly flat, dimensionless drawings on the inside, like wallpaper for a mad doll's house. On the left hand side, a weeping man sits in a chair. Benjamin Franklin (his face from the ten-dollar bill covered by a mask) has just off his hands with a pair of scissors. The hands are falling into a wooden bowl. On the table appears to be some kind of confession, or death-sentence authorization (it's hard to read . . . is it signed by William J. . . .?) On the right hand side, the man with his hands cut off floats in a cloud (does the man look like Timothy McVeigh? maybe) and looks down in terror at George Washington in a mask who is secretly manipulating George Washington in a mask, who is . . . I'm not really sure what he's doing. Everything is out of proportion: arms are too long; postures are caterwonked; there is no background.
     I mention the artwork because, like much of the music itself, it provides startling codes without clear ways to read them. Film theorist Robin Wood once wrote that Taxi Driver was an "incoherent text," a film that didn't clearly spell out its own politics. Is the vigilante Travis Bickle a hero or a danger? Are we supposed to admire or fear him? "Lift Your Skinny Fists Like Antennas to Heaven!" poses similar problems for the listener: is it complicit with or is it ironically critiquing its apocalyptic rhetoric, its end-of-days fury, its militia-like resistance? In the preacher's mad sermon, are we supposed to hear a voice of critique and resistance, or a voice of delusional danger?
     In the little hermeneutic universe that Godspeed creates, perhaps it doesn't matter. It's just another cd on just another obscure label by just another group. Certainly this is true.
     Then why does it feel like so much more?

Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds. No More Shall We Part.
A CD by Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds.
Reprise Records, NY.

play | download

The newest offering from Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, "No More Shall We Part," may just be the most beautiful failed album so far this year. It's so sincere that you sometimes wonder if you're missing the joke: where's the ironic punch line? The album's dirty little secret is that it might not have one. David Foster Wallace once wrote something to the effect that pop culture was always way ahead of the so-called avant-garde: long before postmodern fiction's clever self-referential deconstruction, for example, you had Bugs Bunny falling without a parachute from a plane and then, just before hitting the ground, stopping himself in mid-air, looking directly at you and saying, "Fooled you, didn't I?"
     So too Nick Cave's joke might very well be on those of us who look for a secret trap door behind the words to songs like "Oh my Lord": "Oh Lord Oh my Lord/Oh Lord/ How have I offended thee?/Wrap your tender arms around me/Oh Lord Oh Lord." Sure. He's been heading this way for a long time; he had been bending into the "spiritual turn" that characterized "The Boatman's Call" (1997) for a long time.
     But by the time you settle into the fourth song, the achingly beautiful "Love Letter," you realize that maybe the problem lies with you. When did you get so damned cynical, anyway? At its best moments, this CD--like great art--makes you look back at yourself like that. Nick Cave makes you think twice about playing the part of the ironic critic, the ironic listener. Of course you know that it's irony that gives you the distance you need for critique, but you wonder if it's worth it. Is there anything there in the place your heart used to be? Do you dare look? Go ahead . . .
     And the fact that Cave's ballads are character-driven, almost literary, means that it is actually possible to lose yourself in them just long enough to look back at yourself. And really, that's the album's beautiful failure: it's all about mood and moody ideas rather than details. It always hints at what it could do. The ten piece band makes such small, delicate, lilting noise, that when they finally do rock out in "Fifteen feet of pure white snow" or "Oh my Lord" or "The sorrowful wife," you remember that you have been spending time in the presence of a giant who has chosen not to crush you.
     It's always a big rip-off to talk about a song's lyrics divorced from the actual music, as if there's any point to the lyrics outside the context of music. So I won't say anything about how really, really sincere they are (with the exception of "God is in the house"). Nor will I write about the trademark biblical, almost Old Testament quality of "Hallelujah":

     The tears are welling in my eyes again
     I need twenty big buckets to catch them in
     And twenty pretty girls to carry them down
     And twenty deep holes to bury them in

     At a time when just about everything sounds pretty much like everything else, Nick Cave still manages to make music that sounds like . . . Nick Cave. Is this a good thing? Well . . . for a culture that reproduces and disseminates the avant-garde so rapidly as to forestall any true outsider position, there's a measure of comfort to be taken in the fact that there is really no simulation of Nick Cave.
     The best songs on the cd, like "Gates to the garden," and "Sweetheart come" lurch between genres and styles so easily that they're impossible to pin down. Do you remember the uneasy pleasure you once took in not being able to pin something down? Perhaps the kind of pleasure you found in a good David Lynch film (Lost Highway, for starters) or maybe a novel by Haruki Murakami.
     The last song, "Darker with the day," culminates in a Whitmanesque catalogue of sins and sinners, more spoken than sung by Cave. This one song is packed with more good lyrics and music than your favorite twenty cds combined:

          Amateurs, dilettantes, hacks,
          cowboys, clones,
          The streets groan with little Caesars,
          Napoleons and cunts
          With their building blocks and their tiny
          Plastic phones

     It's the closest the cd gets to danger. But here's the secret truth: it's not enough. Sometimes it takes more than one shot to kill somebody, and this album unfortunately doesn't deliver that second, fatal blast. For all its beauty--for surely this cd is beautiful--it's missing something, something elemental. Shall I tell you what it is? Recklessness, my reader. It's just too danger-free. There, I've said it. There's a mighty good reason why Burt Bacharach and Neil Diamond and Wayne Newton suck, and I don't need to say why, and it's not good--IT IS NOT GOOD--that Nick Cave at least since "The Boatman's Call" has made music that brings their names to mind. Where is the danger in Nick Cave?
     The new Nick Cave. Redeemed! The Great March to the Center! Restoration after Chaos! A New Calm! Delicate Restraint! So Sincere it Will Make You Cry!
     Let it be said: I hate myself for hating it.


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