The Church Of Me
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Kissing in the churchyard, I know a righteous woman

Monday, April 08, 2002

Real radicalism doesn't come bulldozing towards you, waving its primary-coloured flags and raising imagined arms towards an inexpertly perceived future. It doesn't shout at you. Neither does it come trotting up to you and licking your face like an ineptly trained puppy. It simply pitches up its tent and sets up its stall. Thus was Gil Evans a thousand times as radical as Giuseppe Logan. Hence was Sibelius a hundred times as radical as Hindemith. And thus it is that I have to inform you that the most radical record of the last 12 months was not conceived in a DJ mixing booth in south-western Australia, did not emanate from the Winstanley Estate in south-west London but rather was recorded on two guitars with occasional banjo and mandolin in a vintage studio in Nashville which in the past was utilised by Elvis Presley. The record is "Time (The Revelator)" by Gillian Welch. Assisted by her partner David Rawlings. Two impeccably-dressed actors - too impeccable to be real; not enough dirt on her boots, not enough creases in his suit.
But then that's the point. Starting with four defiantly hammered-out flattened-fifth chords, the tolling of a bell not quite concurrent with that of St John the Divine, Welch sets out her particular stall from the first line of the first track "Revelator."

"Darling, remember, when you come to me/I'm the pretender and not what I'm supposed to be/But who could know if I'm a traitor?/Time's a revelator." They come to detonate the received notions of country - and indeed those of (which is now no alt) - within its very epicentre. Wandering around, surf parties, dismissals of white wedding gowns - "leaving the valley and fucking out of sight" she intones demurely in her indeterminate Southern accent - an LA-born offspring of Carol Burnett's old musical director, an attendant of Berklee. "Every word seen in the data/Every day is getting straighter." How distorted is this data to begin with? How much history has she received? How much of it is received?

At the song's climax Rawlings thrashes out some bitonal, aggressively-struck chords, the intimately-miked thwack of fingernail against nylon recorded as closely as Carthy on "Out of the Cut" or Bailey on "Aida."

"My First Lover" continues this not-quite-in-focus lamenting. Recalling an old failed partner and her reluctance to don said "white wedding gown" Welch drifts inexplicably into Steve Miller's "Quicksilver Girl" - itself as much of a virtual "folk song" as anything here.

But this is not the callous aspic-worship of Wynton Marsalis. Nor does it parallel the gratuitous cynicism of Garth Brooks, armed with his MBA.

A pair of comparatively straight love songs follow, but still not traditional. "Dear Someone" is on the face of it as conventional as any Patsy Cline ballad (if the latter could be said to be "conventional") but the singer seems to be now revelling in her roving solitude, now anxious at her seeming lack of anchor, human or otherwise. Then there's "Red Clay Halo" the only song here whose lyrics have turned up on Welch websites, all about a poor lass who can't get a guy as she has to walk through red clay (why?) to attend the dance. Her gown will only become golden in the afterlife with a red clay halo around her head. This is not comfy Opry fare.

Next is the first part of a duologue "April the 14th" ostensibly a recollection of Welch visiting a no-budget outdoor festival with a "five-band bill and a two-dollar show ... no one turned up from the local press." The event passes as the sun sets and the sky becomes red. But the song is topped and tailed with seemingly random interjections of disasters which also occurred on April the 14th; the Titanic (the iceberg coming at it like Casey Jones), the Oklahoma dustbowl evacuation and the assassination of Lincoln ("the Great Emancipator took a bullet in the head"). She whispers "hey!" in the fadeout. A warning or a sob?

And then it's the epicentre of this album - which has to be listened to in full and in sequence - "I Want To Sing That Rock And Roll" recorded live at the Opry. Only 2:47 long. Exhausted with travelling and with her guitar, and with "everyone making a noise, so big and loud it's been drowning me out" she wants either to join or to subvert/destroy. The Opry audience whoops its approval of Rawlings' Scotty Moore licks in the middle. It's only when you realise that the track is extracted from the artfully engineered film "Down from the Mountain" that you understand that the audience is one which has seen "Oh Brother Where Art Thou?" So they're all conspiring.

After that, a meditation on the consequences of wanting to sing that rock and roll. "Elvis Presley Blues." In the chorus it's unclear whether Welch is singing "I was thinking that night about Elvis - the day that he died" or "did he die?" She ponders his sexuality - "he grabbed his wand in the other hand and shook it like a hurricane ... and he shook it like a holy roller with his soul at stake." At the end of his life, "in long decline" he thinks "how happy John Henry was ... beating his steam drill and he dropped down dead." Welch climaxes with a murmured "bless my soul, what's wrong with me?" A tribute which Freddie Starr will never sing.

Back to "Ruination Day" which picks up from where "April the 14th" left off, but with the chords no longer pensive but askew and disjointed, as with the lyrics. "It was not December and it was not May/Was 14th of April that his ruination day/That's the day that his ruination day." Data is scrambled, the flattened fifths never resolved. Icebergs, bullets, dustbowls and Casey Jones merge into one final divine apocalypse. It is the product of a mind which has turned indeterminate. This is profoundly disturbing listening, the Dorian mode impaled upon John Henry's spear.

The symmetry of the album then resolves with "Everything Is Free" which returns to the "do what I want" ethos of "Dear Someone." The song is apparently about Napster - "gonna do it anyway, even if it doesn't pay - I can get a tip job, gas up the car, try to make a little change down at the bar; or I can get a straight job - I've done it before/Never mind working hard, it's who I'm working for." It's a means, not a purpose. It's defiant. It says fuck you far more fervently than Eminem taking the piss out of Steve Berman (not to deny the worth of the latter).

"Every day I wake up humming a song, but I don't need to run around, I just stay home and sing a little love song, my love and myself/If there's something that you wanna hear, you can sing it yourself - no one's gotta listen to the words in my head." A degree of distance/separation from commerce/the listener/the world which is almost on a par with that of AMM. What is there in MY uselessness, she asks, to cause YOU distress?

And finally to the closer, the unparalleled, unbeatable 14-minute masterpiece "I Dream A Highway" which sums up everything that's come before, attempts to explain it and moves music forward. Barely using three chords, but with every conceivable harmonic, acoustic and temporal variation there could ever be. Once again the protagonist is on the move through place and time. The mental highway is delineated by "a winding ribbon with a band of gold" and a "silver vision" which variously comes and rests, blesses and convalesces her soul.

It starts at the Grand Old Opry - "John (Henry, presumably)'s kicking out the footlights/The Grand Old Opry's got a brand new band/Lord let me die here with a hammer in my hand." In other words, she is here to demolish and destroy the citadel of conservatism. Referring back to Presley, she then plans to "move down into Memphis and thank the hatchet man who forked my tongue/I'll lie in wait until the wagons come" only to find that the "getaway kid" has sent her "an empty wagon full of rattling bones" (from the April 14th concert? From the dustbowl?). Then the revelation itself - "Which lover are you, Jack of Diamonds?/Now you be Emmylou and I'll be Gram." But this itself is a red herring. The confession ensues. "I don't know who I am."

And then it hits you. Underline it, Gillian.

"I'm an indisguisable shade of twilight/Any second now I'm gonna turn myself on/In the blue display of the cool cathode ray."

And you realise that this astonishing piece of music is beyond even a reverie, not the reverie of the dying Charles Foster Kane trying to make a personal sense of his life, but the imagined, implanted reverie we recognise from Blade Runner. It is the American equivalent of Tricky's "Aftermath." A replicant trying to learn and assimilate an alien cultural vocabulary. Bowie's imagined Sinatra gabble at the end of "Low." An alien trying to find its mother, its womb.

Explicitly referred to in the next stanza: "Sunday morning at the diner/Hollywood trembles on the verge of tears/I watch the waitress for a thousand years/Saw a wheel inside a wheel/Heard a call within a call." The cops shooting roses at ET instead of bullets. And, like ET, it awakens from the apparent dead: "Step into the light, poor Lazarus. Don't lie alone behind the window shade. Let me see the mark death made" as the song itself continues to wind down in speed almost imperceptibly, now down to funereal tempo winding the call around the circular spin of its own wheel.

There is no resolution. In the final verse Welch proclaims "what will sustain us through the winter? Where did last year's lessons go? Walk me out into the rain and snow." And the chords continue to occur less frequently. The space becomes more vast. The piece ends (if it can be said to end) with a few basic notes, deliciously hovering on the brink of non-existence (cf. Morton Feldman's Coptic Light, the closing minutes of John Stevens and Evan Parker's The Longest Night Vol 2). It fades, but like the end of Escalator Over The Hill, could theoretically continue forever.

And time resolves upon itself. When I started the preparatory notes for this piece in October 2001, I was still in Oxford and in grief. Perhaps it has required six months for me to bring a piece to a successful conclusion. I now feel differently about many things than I did then, and new light has availed itself upon my threshold.

I can but say that anyone wishing to listen to "Original Pirate Material" should first hear this. The parallels are remarkable; the same leitmotifs obsessively returned to, the same template of hopelessness and conventionality endlessly subverted (for "Casey Jones" read "shit in a tray"); no real ending. An individual decelerating in rebellion against the increased acceleration of the rest of humanity.

This is popular music which defies the undertaking. This is miles ahead.

MC London, April 2002

To R with love. Thanking you for the regeneration.

Amor vincit omnes.

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