By: Raymond DeLuca
Herman Melville once said, “To produce a mighty book, you must choose a mighty theme. No great and enduring volume has ever been written on the flea.” He of course had been referring to the matter of what would become his magnum opus, Moby Dick. Then if we widen Melville’s claim a bit, it can be argued that when art, whatever the medium, is in its highest form, in its mightiest state of being, it bends toward broadness, toward the immenser questions and qualities and things of life. Think, has there ever been a great film or exhibition or concerto centered on the flea? It has been said by one of the Beat generation’s finest, Ken Kensey, that with Moby Dick “Melville took on the whole world, saw it all in a vision and risked everything in prose that sings.” Moby Dick confirmed Melville’s claim; the work has endured precisely because of its unrivaled mightiness, of its exploration of the broader themes of life.
Yet, the novel does not explore the immenser qualities of the human condition through armchair philosophy or idle, academic musing, it does so through Saint Elmo’s fire and frightening whales and grand arguments between heroes and their passions while it “risks wandering far, far out into the globe.” That is to say, Melville was able to craft the mighty themes of Moby Dick by a reliance not on sheer intellect or introspection, but through adventure and grandiose storytelling. Therein lies the similarity at the core of both Moby Dick and folk rock band, The Decemberists.
It has become the hallmark of the aforementioned indie rock outfit to eschew the introspection common to modern rock and favoring as a replacement a storytelling approach. The Decemberists have consciously upended the conventional approach to rock music by a such reliance on stories of adventure. The whimsical humor of the “Sporting Life” tells the story of a victorious, yet defeated athlete (someone who wins the battle, but loses the war) whose girlfriend stands “arm in arm with the captain of the other team.” The darkness of “Odalisque” recounts the tale of a “baby girl raised” on “peanut shells and dirt” despite being born in “paradise;” an earthly nirvana that is reserved for her male oppressors who rend her “terribly, stitch from stitch till all” her “linen and limbs will fall,” treating her like the concubine that the song’s title makes reference of. And the tragedy of “Yankee Bayonet” weaves a tale of a Union soldier who only will return to his New England nest when his plot has been dug, repeating with frightening assuredness, “I will be home then, I will be home then, I will be home then.” The Decembrists adopt the same tact as Melville had with Moby Dick, favoring a grandiose story of adventure or tragedy or comedy to tug at life’s threads to the reflection or poetry that have become the conventional practice of modern rock.
This musically gifted collection of raconteurs is not above prequels or sequels either. Our earliest introduction we have to The Decemberists comes with “Leslie Ann Levine” on their 2002 debut, Castaways and Cutouts, a title that cannot help but conjure imagery of shipwrecks and sailors and spur ideas of tragedy and excursion (The sailors on its album art conjure up allusions of the desperate crew aboard Melville’s narrative). Our lovesick narrator here, who has been baptized by suffering since birth, born in “dry ravine…far too soon and at the dead of noon,” tells us how he still pitiably clings “to the petticoats of the girl who died with me.” And on The Decemberists’ magnificent third album Picaresque, the events of the track “We Both Go Down Together” can interpreted as a prequel to “Leslie.” “Meet me on my vast veranda my sweet, untouched Miranda and while the seagulls are crying, we fall but our souls are flying,” Meloy wails on the former, describing a girl born in destitution, perhaps a “dry ravine,” doomed to unrequited love and tragedy as they both fulfill her destiny, going down together.
One gets the feeling as well that the band longs for and would likely be jealous of the kind of adventure and spectacle that colored Melville’s life. According to the band’s official biography, Meloy and crew met, not in Portland as one might expect, but in a Turkish bath, and they claim to travel exclusively by Dr. Herring’s Brand Drigible Balloons, grandiose indeed. A young sailor, coming of age in the 1840s, who traversed the South Pacific around the Cape of Good Horn, lived among the Typee natives for some time and had been jailed in Tahiti for leading an insurrection, Melville lived the kind of fantastical life The Decemberists themselves and their music pines for. The very name of the groups offers a nod toward to the memory of an adventuresome group of burnt out noblemen who breathed the embers of revolution, but died on the frozen hilltops of Siberia - the Russian Decembrists of 1825. These ideas of adventure, discovery and grandiosity are what hallmark the artistry of The Decemberists, just as they defined Moby Dick.
There were two actual, spectacular events that inspired the novel. There had been the sinking of the Essex in Nantucket in the 1830s after it had been rammed by a sperm whale, while the other had been the alleged killing of an as of then previously unseen albino whale, described by the press as having a premeditated ferocity, in the waters of Chile. (Either of these instances sound like they could be pulled from the lyrics of Meloy.) With Moby Dick Melville sought a break from the historical traditions and conventions that had come to define the descriptions and tales of whaling, just as the Decembrists had with the conventions of modern rock. Melville felt the grandiosity and mythology of a whale spoke for itself, whereas his forerunners felt the need to romanticize and sensationalize these leviathans. Thus, before Melville, the tales of whales had suffered from eschewed perceptions of reality, whereas Melville sought to guard against these flawed perceptions by including within his text a series of documentarian like instructions on everything from whale blubber to navigational equipment to maritime lingo in an effort to lend a certain credibility to his narrative. (Any coincidence then that there was in fact an uptick in Americans who set sail on whaling ships following its release, many reading it as more of a manuel than a piece of art).
Though, Melville injects a degree of irony into his endeavor of truly capturing the reality of whales for his characters could not be less subjective, victims of their own distorted perceptions. Case and point, Captain Ahab. Here is a character who sees Moby Dick not even as an earthly being, but as a divinely ordained monster hellbent on ruining sailors. Not only does he make his fellowship shipmates of the Pequod initiate a blood pact to pursue the White Whale until its demise, but he is literally the victim of his own obsession fueled by his distorted perceptions. The novel concludes with Ahab’s own harpoon, the one intended for Moby Dick, piercing his own heart. Does this tragedy of a narrative, this morbidly gorgeous conclusion not beg to be taken into song by Meloy?
Yet whereas the style of Moby Dick had been vastly ahead of its time, the style of Meloy’s Decembrists, which once felt so innovative and fresh, has of late devolved. While artists of the early 20th century rediscovered and finally caught up with the stylistic and kaleidoscope-like innovations ofMoby Dick, it seems the Decemberists are running backwards, conforming to the style of their contemporaries and no longer pushing the envelope. Full of perversions and inversions of traditional style such as screenplay, documentarian, novelistic, religious and epic, Moby Dick can be read foremost as America’s first modernist narrative, one that seeks to all at once satirize, critique, frustrate and challenge the status quo of a society on the precipice of apocalypse. Its a forerunner to the phenomenon of modernist art that dominated the intellectual world, born of the cultural disillusionment and cynicism and radicalism that followed World War I. (Says something, I think, about the kind of artistic culture war engenders having been written under the shadow of a slaughterhouse as the South clamored for secession.) While the innovative, experimental ‘golden age’ of Decemberist music has long since ended, 2002 - 2006. Now, most obviously with the terrible misfire Hazards of Love, The Decemberists have lost the character of their once pioneering spirit, both in content and in ethos. Too often nowadays they try to sound like the artists they spent the first half of their career unintentionally distancing themselves from - everybody else; they have tried to recast themselves as something more accessible, more common, but succeeding in becoming only less adventurous. Their set lists and enduring popularity rests on the nostalgia and folksy experimentalism we all harbor toward their earlier works, hoping someday it returns.
Meloy prides himself on being a pseudo-intellectual of sorts: studying English at the University of Oregon and creative writing at the University of Montana; he even wrote a one hundred page book on The Replacement’s third album Let It Be, and much of his music references history, politics and the like. It would come as a shock to learn that he hasn’t ever picked up Melville’s tour de force, Moby Dick. But now may be the most fitting time that Meloy either return to or discover the majesty of this work. Moby Dick is just as much about a crew adrift headed for the ultimate reckoning as it is a nation heading into a storm, America adrift. It begins with one of the most famous literary flourishes: “Call me Ishmael…,” a line that speaks to our protagonist and society’s floating, uncertain sense of identity, explicitly referring to Abraham’s exiled, desert wandering son. At this moment, The Decemberists’ too endure a crisis of identity, not being able to necessarily return, but feeling uncomfortable with where they have ended up and even more uncertain about where they are headed.
Moby Dick could be what Meloy has been looking for the last six years; it could a reconnection of sort to the innovation and experimentation of their earlier work; it could be a springboard of inspiring tragedy, comedy and nautical adventure; it could be a kaleidoscope of personalities and philosophical questions on which to further explore through song. Indeed - Moby Dick could very well be the band’s own white whale - a means to identity.
@1 year ago with 1 note
#Decemberists #Moby Dick #Herman Melville #Music #Features
By: Raymond DeLuca
To mention Carly Rae Jepsen and The Beatles - or even just a Beatle - in the same breath would strike most as thoughtless, perhaps even treasonous. And though I now plead guilty to such a crime, admitting to such a seemingly poor sense of artistic discernment, to deny the parallels between the respective hits of “Call Me Maybe” and “I Want To Hold Your Hand” - the songs that made these respective artists a few heads and shoulders above ordinary - would commit oneself to a kind of snobbery for snobbery’s sake. So here goes.
It seems - again - almost treasonous to ruminate over the decided failures of the first several Beatles singles to land in the States, yet so had been the case in the early 1960s. Nothing could get those damn Americans buzzing about these ladybugs or these beetles or these bedbugs - whatever they were called - not even those melodies that now seem so imperishable: “From Me To You,” “Please, Please Me,” even “She Loves You.” The first of the trio could only climb to Billboard’s 116, which had actually been somewhat of a success considering the second had been rejected by Atlantic and Capitol Records. The determined Brian Epstein, however, furious over the Beatles’ lack of commercial success in the States, demanded of Lennon and McCartney a distinctly flashier hit - a gaudier one, maybe even a cheaper one - at any rate, a distinctly Americanized one.
Similarly, the twenty-something year old Canadian idol (yes, Jepsen is a Canadian and who, yes, did have something of a career before “Maybe”) had had no luck with her first almost, but not quite edgy CD Tug of War, climbing to no spectacular heights on the Canadian charts and slipping into total obscurity in the States. Every Canadian musician - consciously or not - who aspires for what most musicians aspire knows success will only come not through Loonies, but by George Washingtons. This is particularly true for those of the female variant - see Twain, Shania or Lavigne, Avril or Furtado, Nelly. With such knowledge, Jepsen decided to “pop-ify” a tune that had initially been conceived as a folk song; that is to say, much like Lennon and McCartney, this foreign artist underwent a conscious Americanization of her work.
Both of these artists - to much fanfare and reward it should be mentioned - brought their breakout hits, “I Want To Hold Your Hand” and “Call Me Maybe,” to the airwaves of New York and Miami and Los Angeles with identical intentions, both only after flopping in these very arenas, much to their respective vindication. Singles of “I Want To Hold Your Hand” sold roughly 10,000 copies in New York City by the hour for the first three days of its release, while Jepsen’s “Call Me Maybe” spent nine consecutive weeks at the ceiling of the Billboard Hot 100, only to piggyback on that success by topping the charts in nineteen other countries. Those of the free world - albeit separated by a generation or two - suddenly found these painfully catchy tunes and lyrics not far from their minds or lips during the humdrum of everyday, however begrudgingly.
Besides being the work of two persevering, commercially oriented internationals - these songs share something beyond the material. These songs have in common an air of innocence, which evidently - despite those of the flower power era’s best shot - hasn’t been lost on us of the twenty-first. Just ponder the titles for a second; the first person speaker of both expresses a desire, but without a burdensome sense of self-assuredness; both come across as a bit sheepish in fact, and both likely remain unaware of their sexuality. Think of the awkward, teenage lovesick followups that could very well proceed each title: “I want to hold your hand…but I should tell you - I might not know how” or “Call me…if you have the time? Maybe…but you don’t have to.” Couldn’t these titles be mashed together and achieve an overall similar effect? “I Want to Maybe Hold Your Hand.” “I Want To Call You Maybe.” “Hold My Hand, Maybe?”
Immaturity some would certainly accuse them of, but there is something undeniably endearing about each song - relatable in many ways. Who, even of the most hardened of hearts, could deny the giddiness one feels when receiving a call or clasping the hand of another long sought after. McCartney may put it the best: “And when I touch you, I feel happy inside…” Or, who could be suspicious of that feeling that you just can’t quite seem to put into words or shake in the company of that one hits - maybe those who have yet to feel it? Now who is the immature one? “Yeah you, you’ve got that something” is how McCartney describes the elusive feeling, while Jepsen, at a similar loss, just gushes, “And this is crazy.”
One would do better to think of these songs as simple, rather than simplistic. It is a narrow, but deep distinction, evidently lost on many. It can’t be too difficult for any of us to imagine how the hipsters’ forefathers of the early 60s - The Beatnicks (oh how far they have come) - shrugging off such empty, cheap lyrics and tunes of the then boyish McCartney and Lennon repeating over and over “I wanna hold your hand” and wryly smiling at anyone else who confessed a liking for it as they do now with Jepsen’s smash hit.
The comparison between the two is a worthy one, and to deny Jepsen of it is to not only stubbornly hold your nose up in the air, but also throws your sense of artistic discernment - not mine - to the wind.
@2 years ago with 2 notes
#carly rae jepson #the beatles #call me maybe #i wanna hold your hand #news #features
By: Raymond DeLuca
We have been convinced as a matter of faith that not here amongst the flotsam and jetsam of civilization that those moments of beauty, of splendor and of transcendence that seem to impart a certain sense of meaning or unity to the chaotic chain of events we know as life cannot be revealed to us quite like they can be out there. This of course is the very thesis of Thoreau’s Walden: “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could learn what it had to teach…to suck out all the marrow of life.” He embarked on a pursuit of an uninhibited life of thought and simplicity to discover the beauty of our existence, to achieve peace and to perhaps approach an understanding of man’s purpose. Who could this project not hypnotize? Who could resist the romanticization of such a premise? And this is the lovely premise, the theory of Bon Iver.
Justin Vernon, wrestling with the breakup of his band and girlfriend and suffering from an arresting case of mononucleosis, felt - to say eeyore-ish would be putting it mildly - totally hopeless, set out for his father’s cabin in Medford, Wisconsin with the intention of sucking out all life’s “marrow.” Vernon described it as a “hibernation,” a rejuvenation period; a time to return to life’s fundamentals, that is to say, “to front only the essential facts of life.” In this snowy isolation, he pieced together an album with nothing more than a few microphones and weathered recording equipment, which could be aptly described by treating the name Christopher McCandless as an adjective - McCandlessian or perhaps SuperTrampian (oh how he would loath this), For Emma, Forever Ago.
That album is distinctly the product of a man in isolation. The minimalism of the record - a falsetto, a guitar and an occasional trumpet or drumbeat - serves as Vernon’s attempt to discover the fundamentals of life by using only the fundamentals of musical artistry, relying on just a voice and strings to a haunting effect. Emma’s style is just what Thoreau would have ordered: “Simplicity, simplicity, simplicity!” he urges in Walden; “I say let your affairs be as two or three, and not a hundred or a thousand; instead of a million count half a dozen,” and the record testifies to these urgings.
Emma suggests that through simplicity and reflection, which can best be realized in wooded solitude, man can purge the agony, the sickness even the decadence, again - the “marrow” - from life and in its place restore a much needed perspective. “Rather than love, than money, than fame, give me truth,” Thoreau stated, and while he chose to express this purge and restoration through the pen, Vernon expresses it through song.
The lyrics of “re:Stacks” attests to such a purge, opening with: “This is my excavation…when your money’s gone and you’re drunk as hell…” and concludes with, “It’s the sound of the unlocking and the lift away.” Vernon buries the skeletons that had long been haunting him; he himself had been a sotted victim of Mr. Jack Daniels, and before his pilgrimage had blown his last two hundred on a virtual gamble. The restoration comes on “Skinny Love” with Vernon likely talking to himself for who else did he have to talk to? “In the morning I’ll be with you, but it will be a different kind. I’ll be holding all the tickets, and you’ll be owing all the fines.” Meaning of course, the now sobered, enlightened Vernon will have to pick up the tabs and confront the messes left by the former.
The theory that alone in nature one can achieve a sense of inner meaning and peace underpins the whole of Emma. Each song in its own way has a transcendent quality; the album has the ability to transport its listener to that dreamy Wisconsin cabin as it induces an emotional catharsis. (If you doubt this, you have yet to listen to Bon Iver on an evening hike or amidst freshly falling snow.) The most common line of praise among fans regarding Emma had been how it healed them, how they achieved a certain peace because of it. When man finds himself up in the woods, down on his mind and building a sill to slow down the time (I am paraphrasing the lyrics that Vernon at once howls and whispers like a phantom on a track fittingly entitled “Woods” - case and point) he is able to find meaning, peace and transcendence. Speaking of which, would it be too much of a stretch to consider this a work of neo-Transcendentalism? The theory behind Bon Iver is perhaps the crowning explanation of why its music has had such resonance with audiences for its message has been so engrained in our culture.
Emma is but another cultural entry in the encyclopedia of philosophical, artistic and literary work that express a desire to return to the elemental divinity and peace of life through nature and solitude. It joins the essays of Emerson, namely Nature and The American Scholar, the immortal poems of Emily Dickinson and Walt Whitman and the whole catalogue of Thoreau. Bon Iver may be a relatively new musical outfit (not as new as his shiny Grammy suggests, however), but the premise that his work finds its roots in is not; it as familiar to our culture as Thoreau and Walden and Emerson are. Perhaps then this offers us an explanation as to why on “Creature Fear” Vernon repeats so emphatically, “So ready for us, so ready for us” because we had already been conditioned to these ideas, so ready for him.
Following the critical and commercial accolades of Emma, an album initially self-released intended to make no impressive splash that owed not a thing to anyone except Vernon himself, the rest of us were given the opportunity to observe how Vernon maintained this mesmerizing idea of Bon Iver now in the limelight with such enthusiastic cheerleaders from Pitchfork to Rolling Stone. We can think of Bon Iver, Bon Iver, his meteoric followup, as Vernon’s practical application of Bon Iver as applied the rest of the world, whereas Emma had been more of a personal, theoretical project. His second album served as an introduction of Vernon’s brainchild now emerged from the forest: restored, purged and enlightened, free of the “marrow” of its predecessor, but still beholden to its ideas and ideals. That is, the notions furthered by Thoreau and Walden: simplicity, transcendence, nature and purity. Unsurprising then that Vernon chose to baptize the second album and not his debut with the band’s namesake.
Since Emma, Vernon has frequently described Bon Iver as more of a “sentiment” than a musical project, maintained his lumberjack facial hair, but not to a point of affectation and has referred to himself as an “introspective, emotional country kid.” This is Bon Iver in practice. These are the means employed by Vernon to uphold the transcendentalist ideas of Bon Iver that first found expression with Emma.
@2 years ago with 8 notes
#Bon Iver #Justin Vernon #Thoreau #Features #Walden #Music
The ideas of simplicity and solitude and reflection that Bon Iver has come to represent cannot be maintained easily. The practice of Bon Iver requires a certain raising of the defenses on Vernon’s part. Thoreau warned of “all enterprises that require new clothes” for such ventures have the moral and intellectual potential to blur man’s focus on the “essential facts of life,” and with Grammys, international music tours, fortune and even a friendship with Kanye West that have come since Bon Iver, Bon Iver - things that have surely required a new outfit or two for Vernon - the ideas expressed by Emma have been challenged on all fronts. Is this the conflict he refers to on “Calgary” when he sings: “So it’s storming on the lake, little waves our bodies break…” or is he implying the difficulties on “Wash:” “Climb is all we know when the thaw is not below us…” Who could tell? For Bon Iver, words are secondary. His music is more about the feeling it evokes. Again, this is all part of the application of Bon Iver. The evocative power of Emma is nothing short of disarming, and Vernon knew Bon Iver must maintain, even cultivate this quality on Bon Iver, Bon Iver. And Vernon reassures us that the Bon Iver of Emma has not faded away; swooning on the followup’s opening track “Perth:” “Still alive who you love, still alive who you love, still alive who you love.”
Understanding the difficulties of ‘doing’ Bon Iver, Vernon tries to reaffirm its underlying premise and ideas whenever he can: retreating back into the woods every so often, seating hunched over in a morose kind of way surrounded by guitars during his concerts and even getting a tattoo on his chest of Wisconsin as a permanent reminder of what Bon Iver is fundamentally all about.
It is interesting that Vernon chose a location for the ink nearer to the heart than the brain. This deflates the argument - which I am beginning to hear with increasing pitch - that Bon Iver is just an act for Vernon, that he is just trying to play a role of a modern day Thoreau but instead comes across more like a hackneyed Yoda, a gimmick. The ‘sentiment’ of Bon Iver is one that comes from a heart. How could it not? Something based on a lie surely could not sound as graceful or be as chill inducing as this music. Nothing about it sounds either cheap or dishonest. Few acts come to mind that are as arrestingly beautiful as Bon Iver.
Sometime ago at the Bowery, Justin Vernon took center stage amid total darkness; his angelic falsetto began at a pitch of a whisper as it slowly began to tug the heartstrings of each audience member until it slowly climbed higher, soon filling up the entire ballroom. If any that night had been familiar with Thoreau’s famous quote: “I desire to speak somewhere without bounds; like a man in a waking moment to men in their waking moments,” Vernon surely brought it to mind. He sounded so pure, somagisterial, wholly boundless by earthly constraints it seemed, yet at the same time his voice felt so, so penetrating. He was waking everyone up for the first time from slumber; he made everyone feel as vulnerable and as naked as he sounded.
This had all transpired for one of the concluding minutes - what must have felt like a blissful eternity - of a Kanye West concert. West retook the stage and performed a cut aside this unfamiliar mountain man with the gorgeous voice who despite all the fanfare, spectacularity and megalomania of a Kanye concert still managed to steal the show. With such a simple touch, just with the flurries of falsetto, was all it took that evening for Vernon to win the hearts and minds of the audience for keeps. This is Bon Iver in theory and practice.