Monday, July 18, 2011
Decomposition and Decay
Since rock music came into its own as a part-time art-form, room has been made not only for the downbeat but for the lurid, the ghastly. Sometimes, the songs and records that carry an ambience of decomposition and decay are the most fascinating. “Decomposition and decay” is how producer Jim Dickinson defined the expressive intentions of Third/Sister Lovers; but other pieces in rock have a similar ethos. The closest the Aughts came to producing a Third/Sister Lovers was Wilco’s Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. The record is interesting because Wilco’s sound isn’t particularly lurid; it’s strong, solid but sensitive American Heartland rock music. All through the record, nevertheless, there is a sense that things are falling apart, coming unhinged enough that portions of the record don’t make for comfortable listening. Wilco’s record label were clearly made uncomfortable by Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, and the record caused a scandal for Wilco for this reason. Like Third/Sister Lovers, Wilco’s records starts from the premise of a single relationship and works outward. “I Am Trying to Break Your Heart,” the first and possibly most devastating song on the album, is fractured away from narrative. But Jeff Tweedy uses language in an inventive and unique way so that when he sings, “I been an American aquarium drinker/ I assassin down the avenue/ I’m hiding out in the big city blinking/ What was I thinking when I let go of you,” it’s an entry path into a self-contained world. The landscape of the record is not as bleak as Third/Sister Lovers; but it has a good amount of in-built drama, as songs trail off into nothingness or, as is the case with “Radio Cure,” hover in a strange stasis.
Needless to say, the Beatles version of this is the White Album. Everything that Syd Barrett recorded after he left Pink Floyd has this quality too; it hovers on the brink of disintegration, so that it is like watching a horror or suspense movie in which someone is about to be killed. Elliott Smith’s albums all have moments that fit into this tradition; a song like “Everything Means Nothing to Me” from Figure 8 is so painfully self-conscious and bleak that it is a listening experience that requires a certain amount of bravery. Figure 8, as a whole, not only fits into the tradition established by Third/Sister Lovers, it beat Jeff Tweedy to the punch by a year. The difference between the Alex Chilton protagonist of Third and Elliott Smith as a protagonist is that Alex is destroyed by trying to relate to destructive Others; Elliott Smith is so wrapped in a blue haze of solipsistic misery that no one else can even get in. But the way Chilton has with melody is shared by Smith; and there are no redeeming Heartland values, as there are with Tweedy. What’s uniquely ghastly about Elliott Smith is that he did end up committing suicide in 2003, following several years of disintegration. Figure 8 is a kind of masterpiece, just for displaying how low the consciousness of a rock artist could sink to. All three of these records are fiercely uncompromising enough to call masterpieces. The cloth they are cut from, Anglo influences aside, is American— though only Yankee Hotel Foxtrot sounds indigenous enough that a Brit couldn’t have recorded it.
It would be interesting to hear Bright Eyes do something like this. Conor Oberst’s songs do tend to hover over different kinds of abysses, and for him to really let out the disintegrative impulse might be a healthy process. On the other side of things, Neil Young is given credit for doing this with Tonight’s the Night, which features even more graphic imagery than Chilton and the rest. If Young deserves special credit, it’s because he recorded the album having already achieved commercial (and mainstream) stardom and success. More than the others mentioned, he had something to lose. Springsteen’s “Nebraska” both does and doesn’t work as fitting into this subgenre, disintegrative rock— if the songs are sharp and tightly focused, the characters in the songs are lost in a sense of disintegrative decay. Springsteen should be credited for an album in the subgenre because he, like Neil Young, had something to lose. Among others who could do this, Neko Case is another artist who could probably do something “disintegrative” in an interesting way. Or the White Stripes. You could generalize and just say that any rock writer who displays a good amount of verbal skill and raw emotion simultaneously might put in something useful on this level. The lurid has a fascination that cannot die, and will continue to for as long as the human race can empathize with pain and isolation.