Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Sometimes failure is a prelude.

Failure can be liberation. The admission that something doesn't work frees those held in sway by the influence of outdated modes and mores.

Thinking about The Woods lately I was also drawn to Pavement's Terror Twilight. In some respects a radically different album than The Woods, Terror Twilight nevertheless shares with the former album the status of being a valedictory statement, the final words from a once-hallowed indie rock institution fading into obsolescence. One album is gently melancholy, the other is fiercely defiant - and yet there is no mistaking them for anything other than last albums. "Major League" is a song filled with gentle regret over the group's passing: there's nowhere else to go because they've succeeded on their own terms. They specifically chose not to chase any brass rings outside their personal visions for what the band was and could be. But looking back, the question - half ironic, half sincere - recurs with a startling urgency: did we do everything we could, just because we did everything we wanted?

When the calendar ticked over from the 90s into the 00s, the kind of indie rock represented by bands like Pavement and Sleater-Kinney began to disappear. The idea of either principled disinterest or fervid engagement became hopelessly naive, and every indie band with any type of following or presence became, simply, entrepreneurs. Of all the big "indie" rock bands of the decade, it's harder to find ones who haven't made the jump to the "majors" at some point, or barring that, haven't sold major-league numbers through tireless touring and merchandising spurred by major-league ambition. If you grew up on Pavement, Guided by Voices and Sebadoh, how else to react to the likes of Interpol, the Arcade Fire and Modest Mouse than with thinly-veiled disgust? This isn't a career, this is a beautiful mess. Of course, the contracting music industry means that the lines separating "indie" and "major" have shrank away almost to nothingness - when a smash hit of a record can barely squeak past one million sold, and groups like Neko Case and Andrew Bird debut in the Billboard Top 10, it begs the question as to whether or not the ambition grew larger or the playing field just shrank accordingly.

When Sleater-Kinney inveigh against the fashionistas and scenesters of the early 00s music scene in "Entertainment", the denunciation carries the weight of God's own wrath. But it also can't help but seem strangely impotent, for all its fury, The clock has turned, times have changed. Indie rock isn't politics anymore, it's fashion. It's not about the message but the medium. The message can always be coopted, so why not sing like Duran Duran?
If your art is done,
Johnny get your gun!
Join the rank and file,
On your TV dial.
Artistic nostalgia begats complacency, and complacency begats apathy. An apathetic, fashion-obsessed entertainment industry breeds a non-functioning, apolitical electorate - and a non-functioning, apolitical electorate opens the door for George W. Bush's "landslide" reelection in 2004. Where's the blood, where's the passion? Where's the black and blue? What is left to keep the fox from dragging us deeper into the deadly woods? This is a band playing not merely at the height of their powers but to the brink of hysteria: Carrie Brownstein is screaming like someone's got a gun pointed to her head, as if her deep reservoirs of feeling can somehow overcome the collective apathy of a nation, or the absolute unlikelihood that anyone who doesn't already agree wholeheartedly might hear her words.

Did Sleater-Kinney ask too much of their audience, of their country? They stood for something, really they did; but in the 00s is it even possible to stand for anything from as fragile a perch as pop music? The assumption of impotence is so deeply felt as to be instinctive even by those who exert themselves towards change, so is it any surprise the majority of music made by young people today is so damned apolitical? It's hard to be political when you're going back in time to suck off New York circa 1976 - but forget the Strokes, they're an easy target and old hat. What the fuck is up with all the damn mealy-mouthed folky bullshit these days? Fleet Foxes and Grizzly Bear want us all to sit quietly and hearken back to some acoustic vaguely Arcadian fuzzy juvenility. Vampire Weekend seem to care about as much as I do about their middle-of-the-road Ivy League world music condescension - that is, not at all. At least the Animal Collective have the decency to be weird. Sleater-Kinney were dinosaurs too strong and too principled to die any other death but a self-inflicted gutshot. The Woods is the sound of their dying screams.

But revolutionary fervor is itself only another kind of fashion accessory to be traded and commodified. Green Day went multi-platinum with their most explicitly political album ever, and all it did was turn well-intentioned anti-reactionary populist rhetoric into a fashion statement available for $17.99 at your local Hot Topic. What does it even mean for a pop group to "stand for something"? The bigger the megaphone, the easier it is for the message to be overcome by the medium - and the medium, in this case, is commerce. Failure to assault the system only reifies the system - but how the hell do you fight a system that can metabolize even the most poisonous criticism by turning it into readily digestible product? It's a losing battle. If Horkheimer & Adorno couldn't crack that nut, it's no surprise three punk rock grrrls couldn't either.

Not coincidentally, The Woods was also the first Sleater-Kinney album not to be released on Kill Rock Stars. The album was distributed by Sub Pop, which is partly owned by Warner Brothers.

But somehow, despite the desolation, despite the depression, despite the atmosphere of failure and the acknowledgment of passing time, there is still energy, there is still life until the very end.


The Woods sounds different than anything which came before. Their earlier albums were produced with an exacting precision that did little to distort their very disciplined playing. Here, however, the sound itself seems to come alive, becomes a swirling, dancing, pulsating living creature, the beating heart of a livid, passionate animal.

And so they celebrate their own demise with the wildest bout of fucking you've ever heard in your life. No, it's not lovemaking, even though they might want to "Call it Love", it's fucking - raw, brutal, angry fucking. This is the climactic battle between good and evil inflated across the roof of the sky; this is Brownstein wielding her guitar like the living embodiment of Kirby crackles. This is hardcore. This sounds like two lovers meeting for the last time, knowing that in the morning they must leave (which, in a way, it is). This is the last, most desperate, and most exhilarating sex of your entire life. This is the act of love as an act of pure destructive energy - a destruction that leaves the entire universe barren and raw, empty and inchoate and yet . . . ready. Fecund.

Even after everything has fallen apart, there is still life enough to fill a universe, hope enough to rage forever against the brutality and ignorance of the worst evils. The Woods is both life and anti-life, the will to fight and the desire to die. It's everything nasty and gorgeous, beautiful and scarred. You can't hope to escape unscathed, but you can't escape without feeling wonderfully alive for every harrowing minute.

In the aftermath of such a titanic self-immolation, what strange gods will yet arise from the ashes of this miserable decade?

Best Music of the "Aughts"
10.The Field - From Here We Go Sublime
9.Spoon - Gimme Fiction
8.The New Young Pony Club - Fantastic Playroom
7.Girl Talk - Night Ripper
6.The Roots - Phrenology
5.LCD Soundsystem - Sounds of Silver
4.The Yeah Yeah Yeahs - Show Your Bones
3.Radiohead - Kid A
2.Sleater-Kinney - The Woods 1
1.Wilco - Yankee Hotel Foxtrot 1, 2

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