Friday, June 12, 2009

All I can see is black and white /
And white and pink and blades of blue

This isn't a pipe. We all know this example, René Magritte's La trahison des images, famously utilized in the pages of Scott McCloud's Understanding Comics. This is the painting that introduced semiotics to popular comics theory. It's a simple illustration that covers a deceptive lot of ground in relation to the meaning and legibility of cartoon images, and the sequence introducing the concept is one of the more memorable sequences in McCloud's book.

But I'm going to take the idea one step further. Let's listen to "Pot Kettle Black" by Wilco off Yankee Hotel Foxtrot:

What about the arrangement of this song jumps out at you? The guitars - either the frenetic strumming of the acoustic, or the spare licks of the electric? The drums? The quiet marimba in the background?

How about - none of the above?

There is no guitar on "Pot Kettle Black". Certainly, "Pot Kettle Black" is a song that can be played on guitar - it's been played on guitar hundreds of times by Wilco in concert. But the version of the song on the album, the one that everyone knows, has no guitar in it, no drums, no bass, no marimba, no singing: it consists of electrical impulses recorded onto either magnetic tape or digital sound file, manipulated in an editing machine and mastered before being either printed onto a magnetic signal on the bottom of a plastic disc approximately 120 mm in diameter; or pressed onto physical grooves on the surface of a black plastic disc 12" across. These signals - either the digital signal reproduced on the bottom of the compact disc, or the grooves on the record album - are read by the appropriate stereo equipment and finally fed to speakers wherein the electrical impulses translate into minute vibrations of speaker cones or rotating magnetic coils.

No matter how naturalistic any music may sound, regardless of how well the acoustic guitar is recorded, no matter how authentic the music may be in relation to its particular ethnic or national tradition, if the music has been recorded it has been transformed and reinterpreted digitally. Quantitatively, there is no difference between an .mp3 of Autechre's "Altibzz" and Hank Williams' "(I Heard That) Lonesome Whistle". A person listening to the .mp3s on their iPod can certainly tell the difference between the two, but the mechanism is entirely the same. Authenticity, however you might interpret the concept, has no meaning except in the interpretation of the listener - an interpretation dependent on cultural convention.

The chimerical notion of "authenticity" has become essential to our understand of contemporary music, even if the idea is ill-defined, impossible to quantify, prejudicial and just plain inappropriate. After punk, "authenticity" burrowed into our collective unconscious and has remained firmly ensconced ever since, despite our best attempts to dislodge it. So, what is this "alt-country" thing the kids are talking about these days? Well, how about we go back to the "old school" and play some country-based rock and roll the way our fathers and forefathers in the Flying Burrito Brothers used to do. Hell, let's put more twang in our rock than anyone in Nashville. we'll put out some albums with funky band names like Uncle Tupelo and Whiskeytown. Screw Shania and Garth - this is the real shit right here. Just like, you know, reggae died with Bob Marley - what the hell is this dancehall shit? Those damn Jamaicans don't know shit about reggae, but me, I got a copy of Legend, that's how reggae should always be.

Uncle Tupelo broke up and two bands sprang from the wreckage: Wilco, who matter, and Son Volt, who do not. Wilco released an album, called A.M., composed of whole-hearted orthodox alt-country, so orthodox in fact that it practically verged on self-parody. (Sample lyrics: "You're gonna make me spill my beer, / If you don't learn how to steer".) They got sick of that, gradually moving away from their "roots" and closer to a Big Star / Alex Chilton melancholy power-pop mode, an approach that peaked on Summerteeth. But after Summerteeth things got strange, and the wheels started to fall off the wagon.

So, you've got this band, Wilco, with both feet firmly set on a solid foundation of "traditional" American roots music - folk and country - or at least a late 20th century conservation-minded proto-hipster notion of what traditional forms should sound like. But then people started doing things like take lots of painkillers and hanging out in the studio too long, and then there was critical attention and the pressure of bickering bandmates and hey, let's just throw this new guy into the mix, this producer guy Jim O'Rourke, he works with folks like Nurse with Wound and Sonic Youth and Merzbow, surely that'll make a great fit. We'll make it work somehow.

And the result was an album suspended in the air between these two mutually contradictory notions of sound: sound as the faithful representation of live performance, and sound as raw digital matter, infinitely plastic. The first sound on the album is not drums, guitar or voice, but the high whine of electricity - and then, slowly peeking out from under the noise, you hear drums shuffling awkwardly under the cover of darkness. "I Am Trying To Break Your Heart" doesn't begin like a normal song, it coalesces, it constructs itself out of spare parts left sitting around the studio, a ramshackle pile of chaotic limbs falling all over each other in a clattering mess before finally falling apart again.

If you listen to the album a few times you'll notice something strange: many of the songs don't know how to end, they just fall apart. Instead of coming to a neat conclusion, a track like "I'm The Man Who Loves You" explodes, people forget how to play their instruments, strange noises appear out of far corners of the mix. They're trying to hold it together, they're trying to make a nice rock song, but whatever it is that's keeping them together can't do so indefinitely. Things are getting more and more frantic, more desperate, more urgent. With a song like "I'm The Man Who Loves You", the obvious question for the listener is, who are you trying to convince? Are you telling your lover that you love her, or are you trying to convince yourself that you still do? When you tell me that you "miss the innocence I've known / Playing Kiss covers beautiful and stoned", you're looking back with nostalgia on a time that is obviously firmly in the past, calling to mind an implicit comparison with a present moment which is neither innocent or beautiful. What is going on in the here and now that has you so damn fucked up?

The answer emerges from the mist with "Poor Places" - the beep of a heart monitor in a hospital room. But it's not just a dead or dying relative, no, that's a feint. It's the singer himself: there's bourbon on his breath, there's weakness and paranoia, the confessions of a self-loathing agoraphobic. He doesn't want to leave the house, he's not going outside.
My jaw's been broken,
My heart is wrapped in ice,
My fangs have been pulled,
And I really want to see you tonight.
He needs something that he's not getting, there's something missing, some firm foundation to hold him that has just crumbled and he's falling as far and as fast as he can. He's having a nervous breakdown: the sound gets faster, guitars and synthesizers and pianos and drums pile up one on top of another, and everything has been transformed into a whirlpool pulling every scrap of human emotion as deep into the ocean as possible. Sonic legibility has eroded alongside emotional legibility, as the band's attempt to play a normal rock ballad has been subsumed by chaos. The wall of sound in the song's harried final moments recalls the towering sustained E-major at the conclusion of "A Day In The Life" - unlike the latter, however, "Poor Places" is no majestic conclusion but a profound, insoluble aporia: the death of certainty as the individual is set loose, adrift in his own infinitely recursive mind.

And all that's left when the chaos subsides is a slow, slightly out-of-tune piano, accompanying a weak voice making a delicate, awkward confession:
How can I convince you it's me I don't like,
And not be so indifferent to the look in your eyes,
When I've always been distant,
And I've always told lies for love.
These aren't particularly poetic words, they aren't original and they don't even rhyme. But after the gradually escalating, increasingly caustic and defensive pain of the last hour or so of music, "Reservations" comes off as a cool bath, not exactly a resolution of the tensions that inspired his breakdown but an exhausted resignation. There is no way to reconcile all the different conflicting forces at odds in the album's narrative, no way to make ends meet between the poles of musical representation. There is an ineradicable tension between authenticity of content and malleability of form in contemporary music, and the album's inability to forge any kind of rapprochement between these two approaches both signifies and symbolizes the more profound emotional tension at stake. This Is Not A Rock Album: in fact, it's a small plastic disc containing electrical impulses. This Is Not A Rock Star: it's a guy falling apart because he can't seem to make sense of the world around him.

It is nothing more than absolute coincidence that Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, recorded late 2000 and early 2001, contained a song with these lyrics:
Tall buildings shake,
Voices escape singing sad sad songs,
Tuned to chords strung down your cheeks
Bitter melodies turning your orbit around.

Voices whine,
Skyscrapers are scraping together,
Your voice is smoking
Last cigarettes are all you can get,
Turning your orbit around.
Not to mention the fact that the album cover is a photo of two identical towers standing side-by-side against an ominous blank background.

For all the horrendous pieces of music written about the September 11th attacks, there hasn't been a single song that hasn't failed utterly in its attempt to formulate some kind of cogent response to inestimable tragedy. Somehow, writing and recording long before September 2001, Wilco managed to anticipate and encapsulate a series of sensations and emotions that, at the time, we hardly knew we'd be suffering: the collective nervous breakdown of western civilization. Sometimes consolation works like that: all the most well-intentioned attempts fall flat or phony, but the meaning imparted by an audience long after the fact lingers in the memory. Kurt Cobain was listening to Automatic for the People when he shot himself, an event that implies both the anticipation and the eventual consolation of grief - meaning and significance only emerging ex post facto.

It's been a hard decade. I haven's always wanted to leave the house - it's been hot in the poor places, all over to the sea. It's been stifling.

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