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

Friday, August 09, 2002

Or: The War Between Uncertainty and Loneliness, and a Truce which Serves as a Model for World Order

1. Isolation With Ambitions Towards Reflection:
Fantastic Damage by El-P

It starts with a sublime paraphrase of one of the greatest depictions of the conflict between uncertainty and loneliness in popular music: the first verse of “You’re A Lady” by Peter Skellern, declared at 68 rpm behind a LaMonte Young organ drone which sounds like a coffin closing the world away and protecting via suffocating. Then a pause, an exasperated “Shut up!” – a prosaic reaction to “the things I have to say” which “won’t wait until another day” – bridging into a two-dimensional rhythmic attack which really isn’t that far away from the Liars. “Innocent kids … loading their catapults and goosestepping over innocents.” Then to “Squeegee Man Shooting,” a supposedly nostalgic look at back in the day (1985) over a “Once In A Lifetime”-style eddying piano loop. The word “euthanasia” is apparent.

“Deep Space 9mm” is sonically a ten-dimensional landscape, David Bomberg’s spinal spires looming at you from unexpectedly close angles. Almost Factory Records-like in its middle-distance luminosity, with synth blasts suddenly emerging athwart your armpits. Time has moved on slightly here; now we’re “back in ’86.” But then a protest against imposed sentimentality: “Why haven’t we left yet?” “Take yo’self to the river and throw yourself in/dissolve into syncopated fragments,” and, fracturing the Marvin Gaye consensus, “Can’t save the children – wasn’t worth the effort.”

“Tuned Mass Damper” dampens rock down with its great synthesised plinths of echt-guitar metal. All about someone who “wrote his own eulogy for coke-heads.” A forlorn soul voice drowns in the far distance; a Philly Sound-type decaying echo. Suddenly comes into focus at 2:30. “Dead Disnee” bookended by that strange accordion synth which gives the impression of a drowned sea shanty. The etiolated female vox makes this the most danceable thing here. If you choose to dance with shadows.

“DeLorean” still wants to go back to something which may not ever have been there – “when muthafuckas could rock.” And to “prove” that they “could” on to “Truancy” – a Mahavishnu Orchestra type stalkout backing a tale of wasted youth which at 2:47 suddenly blossoms into technicolor ecstasy, blissful release, then decelerating at 4:15 into what could almost be Crazy Horse.

Then it’s time for war, “The Nang, The Front, The Bush and the Shit.” “Orders to burn down the village.” A plea becomes audible: “Take my life back!” “NO!” exclaims Richard Burton as Big Brother in the 1984 samples decorating the monotone drone of “Accidents Don’t Happen.”

The centerpiece and source of pain on this record follows: the astonishing “Stepfather Factory.” Ascending guitar waves and stumbling percussion recall My Bloody Valentine. Tokens of capitalistic compromise abound: “jobs for the community – the age of familial industry” – robots as fathers. “A big step for the little steppers.” With the inevitable HAL ending: “Why are you making me hurt you? I love you!” The opposite bookend to Kool Keith’s concept of robots.

Bleak, but crucially looking from outside.

Then sadness and bereavement. “T.O.J.” “I used to be in love,” he mourns over a backwards bebop drum line which mutates into an ominously moving Robert Wyatt-esque organ refrain.

“Lazenfaces’ Warning” could in its primitive industrial clanking be Fast Product era Human League. Yet the closely-miked percussive cuffs are the equivalent of Lucien Freud’s passionate cutting slashes, so real they could almost be slashing you. El-P screams a mantra, “The burning lights we’ve been standing under – I think they’re all broken. I tried to warn you!” before translating into hysteria.

A poignant interlude: “Innocent Leader” – another lost vocal amidst the slipstream of what sounds like a compression of endings to ‘80s electro anthems. Evolution leading to “Constellation Funk” a full-blown bitonal MBV homage (and shouldn’t the latter have collaborated with Public Enemy on “Lost at Birth”?) with a request for a “Major Tom upgrade.”

The finale “Blood” occurs after world death; the organ heard from above the listener. The refrain “do right, do right, do right” hovers.

“When I say She, I mean God” says El-P.

The isolatee wishes to change the world, but is staring from the outside and his natural rage cannot quite overpower his equally natural uncertainty.

2. Assuredness within Reflection:
Lateralus by Tool

Many have commented on the successfully enclosed world which Tool, and specifically this record, achieve. One could literally wander around its perfectly ordered boulevards for decades on end.

This music is equally isolated, but strangely confident and sure of itself. This is because its construct has brooked no impairment by overt “emotion.” Tool are very reminiscent of these ‘80s (mainly SST) operatives who clinically filleted out the excess, the squeals, the useless virtuosity, to form a determined and staunch order – literally, turning rock into a rock. Think of Saint Vitus, Paperbag or even the long-lost Dutch minimalist metal instrumentalists Gore.

And yet, even within the exquisitely structured mores of quiet bits leading to loud bits and back again, there is considerable variety; mainly because these options are never automatically selected, but seem to arise organically and are without their usual baggage. Opening track “The Grudge” seems on the surface to be a familiar rant about unspecified alienation. The term “prison cell” occurs. “Choose to let this go” instructs the singer before embarking on a sustained scream, which really isn’t a scream at all (one of only two on the album).

The instrumental “Eon Blue Apocalypse” briefly preludes "The Patient" which initially makes like an early ‘70s Brit TV theme tune (Budgie?) with its reluctant rimshots and wah-wah. “A groan of tedium escapes me” states the voice. Then he suddenly turns into Arthur Lee: “And I’m still right here/giving blood, keeping faith.” Reinforced by stating “be patient” and “gonna wait it out.”

The following “Mantra” is a mantra. “Schism” examines the nature of communication as it relates to making all the “pieces” fit rather than “tumble down” or “fall away.” The singer wails ecstatically at the climax: “I know the pieces fit!” in such a way that you would never dare to doubt him. But does he know why they fit?

A duality follows: the brief folk keenings of “Parabol” followed by “Parabola.” “This body holding me.” The attack gradually and gracefully decelerates.

“Ticks and Leeches” could pass for Joy Division in its intro and outro: all “New Dawn Fades” guitar clang and drum-and-bass hyperactivity. The music ecstatically rides both peaks and troughs – “This is what you wanted, this is what you’re getting – YOU CHOKE!” (the second scream occurs)

The title track “Lateralus” has an ascending guitar line which you could use to climb to a better world “Push the envelope – watch it bend,” urges the voice. “Overthinking, overanalysing, separating the body from the mind” the singer instructs. “Keep going” he concludes.

Then the peak and punctum of the record: the astonishing one-two punch of “Disposition” (with REM-type undulating guitars, gentle tabla, a “watch the weather change” refrain) which evolves, via a brief free drumming/minimalist electronica interlude which could have passed for light relief on Tony Oxley’s Ichnos, into the epic “Reflection” which outlines yet another more interesting aesthetic direction in which the Police might have travelled (though Sting would never intone lyrics such as “I may find peace within the emptiness” or words such as “self-indulgent”). The dynamics are astonishingly tactile here. Superficially clinical, perhaps, but never uninvolving.

The last “song” here is “Triad” which is delicately lowered by discreet string synthesiser at 4:20 but then ends abruptly.

A brief pause, and the album ends with “Faaip de Oiad,” the piece which unites this record stylistically with Fantastic Damage – a mindblowing fusion of freeform drumming and electronic burps (the latter could have come straight off “Deep Space 9mm”) with a confused person’s reminiscences/confessions warbling not far behind (“I was let go on a medical discharge about a week ago, and I’m kind of running across the country”). Reminded of Paul Lytton’s invaluable contribution to the closing moments of White Noise’s Electric Storm.

There is undoubtedly self-induced isolation here but never any doubt that the musicians would dare to acknowledge. There are four musicians listed on the impenetrable sleeve; I have no idea what each one does, but as with Terry Riley’s ensembles or Keith Tippett’s Ovary Lodge, it doesn’t really matter.

3. The Brightest Light Can Shelter The Darkest Isolation:
The Eminem Show by Eminem

You CANNOT hide from the voice of Marshall Mathers. It seeks you out, drags you to within an inch of its remarkable tripling tongue and forces you to listen. Nobody knows more than Marshall. No one is more confident about being unconfident. Even the wounds which he chooses to exhibit to us are carefully chosen to hide the real scars.

Can such an apparently open record as Eminem’s third album ever hope to hide anything? We all know by now. And we consume, not for strictly qualitative reasons, but because we want to nose in on his story, want to witness his perceived extended suicide.

He’s back! And we’ve been so lost without him – have had to make do with Limp Bizkit and Moby and bin Laden! His bluff on “White America” is a double bluff – the apparent aside “I’m just kiddin’ America, you know I love you!” Perhaps he really does. Elvis had nothing to hide but was brilliant at hiding it, thus became superhuman. Mathers exposes “everything” – he sells ‘cos he’s white, he works ‘cos your kids look like him, I am shoving it in your face and what’s more I pay my taxes. He wants to confess, to bury – his mother on “Cleaning Out My Closet,” his worshipped daughter on the rather touching despite itself “Hailie’s Song” which again brings to mind the lost lead singer of the Descendents, astray amidst the brownstones. To say bollocks to the critics and kiss the fans who cry themselves to sleep at night and for whom his music provides the only escape route – “Dream on” sings a sampled Steve Tyler against a real Joe Perry – “Maybe tomorrow/the Good Lord will take you away.”

Scared of death. So scared he has to get his pals in D12 to articulate it on “When The Music Stops.” Freeforming through the reverse warp of “Square Dance.” The murderous rhythmic brutalism of “’Till I Collapse.” Mike Skinner with money.

Scared of love. Misogyny bred from fear in “Superman,” again musically strangely like REM. He cannot face love, cannot entertain the thought of commitment, of a future, thus blasts off the barstool the easiest of targets to cover the reality that he loathes himself more than anything or anyone else.

And it is inevitably the bleakest and most isolationist of these three records. And the most frightening moments occur in the last “song” on the album – “My Dad’s Gone Crazy” featuring Hailie Jade, supposedly a “comedy” track. Dad is not goofing around. “I’m going to hell! Who’s comin’ with me???” He will “blow every fuckin’ thing except Afghanistan on the map off.” In a closing escalating rant comparable in delivery to that which climaxes “Lazenfaces’ Warning” he states that there is “more pain inside of my brain than the eyes of a little girl/inside of a plane aimed at the World Trade, standin’ on Ronnie’s grave, screamin’ at the sky till clouds gather.” And, coldest of all, his chorus refrain, his dire admission that “there’s no one on earth that can save me, not even Hailie.” And you feel that he means it.

He is inside the world but doubly inside himself. He cannot move for uncertainty.

“Littell flipped the channels. Littell caught the Triad…Three funeral shots. Three artful cuts. Three widows framed.

I killed them. It’s my fault. Their blood’s on me.

He waited. He watched the screen. Let’s try for all three. He flipped channels. He got one and two. He lucked on all three…The image held. One picture/all three.

Littell grabbed the gun. Littell ate the barrel. The muzzle roar shut off all three.”

(James Ellroy, The Cold Six Thousand)

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