Monday, February 27, 2012
Interiors: Sister Lovers and the 70s
One facet of the rock master narrative that's never changed is this: in the early 1970s, a group of singer-songwriters came to prominence (James Taylor, Cat Stevens, Joni Mitchell, Laura Nyro, Leonard Cohen, Jackson Browne) who conflated introspective tendencies with the desire to "confess" in their lyrics. Interestingly, this confessional trend mirrored something which had happened in English-language poetry ten years prior- New England poets like Robert Lowell, Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton, and John Berryman had made successful a highly stylized version of extreme Romanticism- first-person narratives which brought to light personal tragedies and vulnerabilities in an unmediated way. In the translation from "haute" to popular culture, the bathos of Lowell became the bathos of James Taylor- a song like "Fire and Rain," his break-out hit, dramatized his personal struggle with accepting mortality after the death of one of his friends. The music was not the folk-rock of the Byrds but folk-pop: pleasant, major-key, and easy to listen to or ignore. One of the features of early-Seventies singer-songwriters was a dichotomy between melancholy lyrics and dulcet music- the sense that sugar-coating could sell bathetic confessionalism. Jackson Browne was the most extreme (and sharpest) of these singer-songwriters, whose perceptively probing lyrics could be devastating, but whose music was as sunny "California" as it could be. "Doctor My Eyes," his hit from '72, is a bizarre mixture of breeziness and the macabre; the dichotomous split between lyrics and music is almost laughable.
The main idea of the singer-songwriters (this is a part of the rock master narrative which makes sense) was to move inwards, towards a state of self-absorption, rather than extending the communal, countercultural impulses of the Sixties. The basic gist seemed to be that the communal had failed- but the shattered dreams of individuals were still worth exploring. If Sixties sociability became Seventies self-absorption, what rock audiences wanted was to have their concerns (personal relationships and vulnerabilities) mirrored. The problem is that in 2012, albums like Carole King's Tapestry (a monster commercial success at the time) and Joni Mitchell's Blue (a monster critical success over the last forty years) now sound tepid and self-indulgent, wrapped up in their own platitudes. A better, sharper, more imaginative version of Seventies self-absorption was Big Star's Third/ Sister Lovers, recorded in Memphis in the mid-Seventies but not released until '78. If the album has a centerpiece, it's "Holocaust," which is both musically and lyrically extreme in a manner that the more mainstream singer-songwriters never were. Sister Lovers does have an interesting sense of musical avant-gardism working in its favor- the way it was produced (by Jim Dickinson), the music is structured unconventionally to include eerie "breakdowns" or "breakage," wherein songs drift into periods of inchoate discord or dark hushes. The extremity of Sister Lovers accounts for the fact that there is no dichotomous wall separating lyrics from music- both are strange and haunted.
What Alex Chilton, the avatar of Sister Lovers, confesses to is multiple- within the context of a love triangle, he confesses not merely to an inability to relate but an inability to transcend venomous self-loathing (which engenders perpetual self-abasement.) That's what "Holocaust" is, lyrically- an exercise in self-loathing. The best rock lyricists of the Sixties (Davies, Reed, Jagger, et al) were not big on self-abasement and self-hatred; nor, incidentally, were confessional poets like Plath, Sexton, Lowell, and Berryman. Even at the edge of the abyss, Plath mythologizes herself as "Lady Lazarus," a kind of reverse goddess. If Chilton cuts deeper than these poets, it's because he speaks out of a context he created on Sister Lovers (the love triangle with Dana and Lesa), rather than wallowing. This context, however strange Sister Lovers is, is dynamic; it places Chilton's self-abasement, self-hatred, and self-absorption within something. If you put Chilton's Seventies centerpiece against some Sixties centerpieces ("A Day in the Life," "2000 Light Years from Home"), what comes across is that the protagonist of "Holocaust" is not a space-cadet or an Everyman; he's someone so submerged in his interiority that it's difficult to sense how he appears on the surface. Sister Lovers is "music from the depths"- it's uncompromising in a way that the more commercially successful singer-songwriters were not willing to be.
Sister Lovers shares with Ray Davies a stance against engaging the topical- but (usually) from a first-person perspective. Because the songs are affixed to a plot which thickens and concludes (in some sequences), we sympathize with this protagonist, as we do with the narrators of many Davies songs. He has an interior and an exterior life. Where Lou Reed is concerned, the only thing which seems to be deviant about this character is his degree of self-loathing. The funny thing is to put Alex Chilton up next to the complacency of James Taylor or Cat Stevens. Complacency is one of the reasons critic Lester Bangs found James Taylor so annoying- however much he whined, he himself was never the problem, and what he confessed was tainted by this syndrome. The dichotomy of "shallow depths" disappears in Sister Lovers into a realm of genuine emotional torment. Public mythologies are prevalent around the making of this record- that Alex Chilton was non compos mentis on drugs most of the time, and that his relationship with Lesa Aldredge exacerbated this. Alex Chilton, in '74, was living out what James Taylor was faking. Considering what had happened to the Sixties stalwarts by '74 artistically (especially the Stones and Kinks), Chilton was by then the most relevant figure in rock music, even if no one knew it at the time. Bruce Springsteen's eruption the next year in some ways worked as an American renascence to the Ray Davies "manner"- but confessional rock reached its apotheosis in Sister Lovers. Between Chilton and Springsteen, America in the Seventies had produced two rock songwriters who upped the ante against countercultural conformity, clannishness, and elitism.