Monday, July 18, 2011
Melancholy and the Rockist
One thing that distinguishes art from entertainment is its ability to express subtle emotions. Entertainment emotions are almost invariably broad— overwhelming joy or sadness, comic complacency, etc. Educated people often associate rock with such broad emotions, too— and, to be sure, show biz rock does wallow in broad gestures and emotions. But the good stuff, where rock is concerned, is capable of emotional subtlety. In terms of shades of emotions, they are usually conveyed by a combination of voice and lyrics, abetted by musical ambiences. It’s the pursuit of the moody. A record like Nico’s the Marble Index is pure mood; and the mood could be interpreted as shades of sustained melancholy, a “color range” of shades of blue. Marble Index is as far from “entertainment” as it can possibly be; even if its melancholy moodiness can really only work if it matches your own mood. John Cale produced the Marble Index. To the extent that his Paris 1919 is also a “mood record,” the mood is more subtle and more unique than most quality rock music, even indie or cult stuff. Paris 1919 comes across as surprisingly Old World European— not the nouveau Europe of Kraftwerk or Can, but something genteel and literary. Lip service is given to Dylan Thomas, Graham Greene, and Shakespeare— and in a detailed way that implies deep knowledge.
The irony is that this Old mood is created almost entirely by Cale’s voice and lyrics— the music could be compared to Revolver-era Beatles or even (as in “Macbeth”) ELO. To the extent that certain textures clash, they even out to a solid blue. Neither Cale nor Nico are particularly rockist— in terms of rockist material that does translate as mood music, Mazzy Star charted some turf in the 90s that fits under this aegis. What’s tricky about turf like this is that it is narrow; if you just do “mood,” it is difficult to develop range. What fits under “Goth” also tends to fit under “mood”; Robert Smith and the Cure solved the range problem by balancing mood pieces with pop songs. For the short span of time they were around, Joy Division did the same thing. The way I define “mood” is this— texture over concision. Texture tends to be sustained over long pieces— and it can be created, as on Paris 1919, by lyrical content too. Chan Marshall’s lyrics are often textural, rather than content-based— the point they make is the mood they create. Sometimes, as in “Nude as the News,” they come close to plain sense without ever emerging as a coherent narrative. The foreboding and menace in the coherent phrases is enough— the listener is challenged to create a narrative of their own. “Cross Bones Style” does roughly the same thing. Bjork takes the same approach and Europeanizes it— her imagery is less “homey” than Chan Marshall’s.
What’s the moodiest rock ever to be huge? If the answer isn’t the Cure (who filled stadiums), and if prog-rock, for some of us, doesn’t count, the answer would have to be the sort-of prog, sort-of Goth, sort-of rockist Pink Floyd, who were never jaunty, angry, or highly sexed. One reason fans find the classic Floyd albums monolithic is that they do create and sustain specific moods. The mood ends up being the cohesive glue, even though more often than not direct narrative is employed, lyrically. What’s surprisingly is not necessarily that the mood is melancholy, but that rock music this melancholy could be so commercially successful. Roger Waters has always suggested that Floyd’s music served a cathartic purpose for its audience; a sensible explanation for an unusual phenomenon. John Cale’s lyrics were too elliptical to be cathartic— to the extent that Paris 1919 remains a cult classic, the average listener might have a hard time relating to it. What binds Floyd and Cale together is a kind of European seriousness— both of intention and performance. It’s a kind of seriousness that’s inherently artistic, rather than show biz based. It implies the brooding sense that time moves slowly, and that the past is worth looking at. Americans often get nailed for being present or future-minded. The equivalent American emotion is buoyant optimism. To the extent that some rock has fully internalized the European, this has been rebelled against.