Reflector

Reflector

You and I, we are all born imitators. We have a special knack for taking our experience and pushing it back out into the world. At the summit of a craggy hike, we look out on the world in miniature and when we have returned to the valley and the world is full-sized again, we find someone and tell them what we saw* apeak the mountain. We use language in an attempt to recreate in our friend the hush and awe we felt in the presence of the panorama. Failing that, at least to stir in them the desire, like our own, to hike up and see it for themselves. Our experience of beauty is like breathing. We cannot inhale but that we exhale.

We do this especially in art. When we take something that’s next to nothing—a blank page, an empty canvas, a pile of wood or clay—and we shape it into something recognizably human-touched, we imitate the God who took actual nothing and worked it into everything including our blank paper and stacked lumber. We cannot inhale but that we exhale.

We do this even in the mundane. Who hasn’t found themselves standing over a sink of dishes humming out snatches of a familiar melody without really thinking about it? Songs come in at our ears and go back out through our voices. In and out. Stories cycle through us, picking up and shedding detail, but arcing along those old, familiar bends. The journey home. The fall and redemption. The restoration of order and justice. The romance. When you tot it all up—from the mundane to the sublime—what is all this work but the imitative life of human culture?

A while back, my church housed a music venue. In the halcyon days of The 930 music venue, one of the shows that I remember best was Bill Frisell alone on the stage with a guitar making sonic magic. So, when I heard that he had recorded a version of “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall”—a Bob Dylan tune that I had long heard of but only recently actually listened to—I had a listen. The reinvention is sublime, but it’s a symbiotic relationship.

When it comes to an artist who has had their work reinvented and imitated ad infinitum, hard rainthere is only one Bob Dylan. Perhaps it’s a consequence of his being revered and prolific in a way that makes the onlooker feel dizzy and quite lazy, but you flip through any muscian’s body of work and like as not you hit at least one Bob Dylan cover song. In this case of “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall”, Frisell strips away the lyrics—a stream of opaque and increasingly ominous imagery punctuated with the invocation of that hard rain that might be a baptism or a judgement—and mines the seam of melody for all its worth and then some. In doing these increasingly complex and noisy variations on Dylan’s theme, Bill Frisell provokes a fresh emotional resonance from the song.

Now, Frisell’s distinctive playing has merit all its own but, honestly, one might find that Dylan’s simple folk melody grows a little repetitive if one didn’t have snatches of his excised lyric haunting you while you listen. The refraction through the prism of surrounding artists so often reaffirms and even magnifies the beauty of the original work. Frisell indeed bends Dylan’s vision in a gorgeous arc, but the cover is also elevated by memory. The source material remains vital.

What we see when Bill Frisell plays Bob Dylan is that some sort of alchemy takes place when we imitate even just other people. We’re a lot like Waldo. Not the guy we hunted in crowded kids books, but the myna bird from Twin Peaks. By mimicking the sounds he’d heard, Waldo added to what was known about who was present when Laura Palmer died. We, too, are mimics in our way and so we can also add to what’s known about the truth. Imitating one another is only the beginning.

It’s important, at this point, to remember that we don’t imitate as a sign of deficiency, a lapse in originality (at least, we don’t always imitate that way, though we must admit that there are eight Fast and Furious movies by now and who can even count how many Transformers movies we’ve been subjected to). We imitate because we are made that way. We are not originators. We are images of God. Reflectors. This is a distinction we often disdain as humility escapes us, but we best represent God in the world when we accept it. We cannot exhale but that we inhale.

As confessed image bearers, we have an opportunity to bear witness. We breathe in the world around us and it combines with the life which the Spirit breathes into us. Then we breathe it all back out. Changed as it is for having mingled for a while in that cauldron of thought and history and desire and dread that is our mind and further refracted for having re-entered the world tuned to the unique skill of our bodies, as distinctive as a thumbprint. Whether in acts of neighborly care, as works of art, or even as the simple routines of our daily life, we have the chance to add to what is known about how God moves in the world. By this overflow, our lives animate God’s work–so often hard to see–even as they are animated by God’s work.

This can feel like an overwhelming responsibility. Especially if we are honest about the real-life condition of our hearts suspended in the already/not yet paradox that is our common, limping pursuit of Jesus. Nevertheless, we should take heart. And, we should start small. If you ask me, we should stay small, but that’s an entirely other conversation. But, in a room with people we know, we have so much to see and so much to offer. We can testify how God has worked in the one and only us and we can see how God has worked in one and only others. On this shared peak, we can all gain a larger view of what God can do that we would have ever found deep in the valley of ourselves. This might just be the height of human culture.

 

* It bears noting that the mountain vista will always be bigger in our mind’s eye than in any photograph with its scissored edges and immobilized perspective. And would we rather remember the moment or the photograph?

 

Brief Thoughts on The Nashville Sound

Brief Thoughts on The Nashville Sound

My copy of Jason Isbell’s new record came in the mail Tuesday night and I’ve been able to listen to it a couple of times since then. My first impression is that The Nashville Sound is a sonic gem. The vocals are recorded pretty dry at times, especially on the opener and the lovely “If We Were Vampires”, and it gives a cottony intimacy to the quiet songs. It’s a sound I just can’t get enough of. The double-tracked vocals “Chaos and Clothes” are another excellent choice. The record is also louder than its predecessor. The electric guitars come out more often, which is just fine by me.

And then there’s the songwriting. Isbell has traded in some of his storytelling (which is superb) for more commentary and that makes a few of the songs hit pretty on the nose. Some people might find this troubling. When Isbell is telling stories, he comes at the poetic heart of what he has to say at an oblique angle. That distance on his part allows the listener to get in right up close, so to speak, and sop up the imagery and let it flavor their own longing and memory.

But, on new songs like “White Man’s World” and “Hope the High Road”, Isbell isn’t showing as much as telling. For 3-4 minutes, it’s about him more than you. He gets right up close, and in order to keep the same space between artist and listener–space that let’s the listener feel a sense of belonging with the song, space that Isbell provides free of charge with fiction songs–the listener needs to shift. Understandably, some might not like this affront to their sit-back-and-consume habit of listening. But, I’m ok with it. I’m willing to work at approaching the songs from a distance because I trust Isbell as an artist. So, here’s what I make of the aforementioned tunes.

Isbell and his wife (who sings and plays the violin in the band, which lends a heartbreaking dimension to that vampire song) have a daughter, their first kid. And so the music isn’t just art anymore, it’s legacy. It’s not an offering to some disembodied audience, it’s evidence of the kind of man Isbell is within his time. Evidence which his child will gather with a Holmes-like prodigy. Our kids are the master sleuths of who we really are, and Isbell wants to be found out to be good.

So, for me, these uncomfortably direct songs aren’t just about what Isbell has to say (and I do happen to agree with a lot of it, awkward as it feels), it’s about why he’s saying it. I feel that fatherly panic of wanting my own sons to find me out to have been a good man in the end. What forays I make into artistic expression (like this very thing you’re reading and all the other things in the same digital attic) I make with more than half an eye to how they might guide the boys I love. I’m glad Isbell broke the show don’t tell rule. I’m glad he went that route. It shows me that he’s the same kind of father I am no matter what he’s telling.

Yield

Yield

Kentucky must bear two contentious election cycles in a row right now. State and local politics in 2015 (mercifully over) and the presidential race in 2016, already odious and not even fully conceived. In the midst of all this throat-cutting clamor for power, er, uh, democratic pursuit of your trust and confidence, let’s talk about music. Let’s talk about an album that ought to be one of your favorites from the 90s (that decade now apparent as the last reel of warm, pulsing film before the atomizing storm of the digital revolution). Let’s talk about Yield, if not Pearl Jam’s greatest record, then one that captured a unique and wonderful moment in the evolution of the last great American band, one born in the dying light of an era we didn’t realize was over.

Yield is a proclamation of freedom, incongruously named for the act of giving way. Limitless potential hemmed in by the boundary of wisdom. To understand what makes Yield special, you need to know a bit about Pearl Jam’s history. Now, there is a full-length documentary about this story, but if you trust me to be your guide, here it is.

A brief history of Pearl Jam

Pearl Jam is a world-conquering band made up of five guys who never went on a conquest. In the capricious business of pop culture, the music these five guys cobbled together from the raw materials each brought with them was released into a public hungry hungry for a big emotional punch. Ten was a blockbuster. In the span of a single year, these young, earnest musicians were remade in the image of honest to God titans, expected to define a generation of American youth. But remade by whom? To what end? The music hadn’t changed. How could it? Pearl Jam had still only made their first record. No, the market changed around them, closing in like big teeth.

Imagine going from playing for a hundred people in a club to pouring your heart out in front of a literal sea of people just months later. Propose that scenario to any striving musician and they’re liable to say it sounds like a dream come true. They haven’t lived it, though. More than only the musicians dream this dream and some of the dreamers would just as soon roast your ambition on a spit and eat you alive. We call such dreamers ‘executives’, always serving up a banquet to the consumer. For a fee.

Building the brand

Executives make their living in the formless world of brands, empty notions ready to be inflated by what hot air the PR machine can generate, in this case from five guys making music in a room together. Executives are practiced in the art of appetite. Feed the creature what it wants and it will want more. A new band makes a popular record and the PR machine grinds into action. Radio play and music videos generate demand for a tour (hey, you get to play your music every night and isn’t that what all musicians are after?), which leads to the demand for more music to recapture the feeling of the live experience. Soon, the appetite for Pearl Jam was everywhere.

The thing about appetite, though, is that to be fed, it must consume, and we cannot consume anything without destroying it. This is true of everything I can think of: food, resources, God. So, in a very real sense, the appetite of the consumer is the appetite of the destroyer.

Executives measure themselves by how much they can feed this appetite and the brand is the tool by which they scale up production. A brand makes the band into an abstraction, a disintegration that separates their image from their actions. From bodily creature to ubiquitous entity. The brand is more than five guys making music together. It is what the band says and what is said about the band. It is what the band wears and who wears the band. It is the thrumming impression of the band that can be everywhere that Ed, Mike, Stone, Jeff, and [insert drummer’s name] cannot. A brand in full fledge can stoke the appetite—and the ensuing consumption (nicely monetized)—to amazing heights, which in turn gives rise to the music industrial complex[1].

For Pearl Jam to submit to such branding would mean their end. On a human level, it’s the end of being a neighbor and the advent of being a celebrity, an isolated object of curiosity and gossip. Anyone who performs for a living will be known without human connection, so some degree of celebrity is inevitable, but this can be inflamed to an unhealthy degree. The inevitable result of branding is such inflammation. Eventually, branding also ends the music, one way or another. To meet demand, the band would be expected to stop creating and start reacting, riding the market like a wave. Either the members grow increasingly bored until one leaves (they did start off as artists, after all), or the market begins to leave them behind and, in trying to keep up they find their creative muscles have atrophied and their ‘new sound’ falls in the chasm between imitation and retread. Either way, a band actively caught up in branding has begun the end of their vitality. Of course, the executives draw their vitality from a deep roster of exploitable talent cued up to slot right in when one band fails in endless succession. The machine churns on. Staring down this road, maybe not seeing it all clearly, but having the instinctive unease of an animal sensing a predator, Pearl Jam began to react.

Killing the brand

To the executives’ squealing delight, the golden goose did lay one more batch of solid gold hits: Vs. Their second album displayed ‘the Pearl Jam sound’ perfected. Distilled into a kinetic rush of guitar riffs and youthful solidarity. Vs. sold 1 million copies in its first week and was used to establish Pearl Jam as the hot commodity of 1992. Then their third album, Vitalogy, topped the Billboard charts on the strength of early-release vinyl sales alone (and this was in the barren age between the time CDs killed LPs and the late renaissance of the wax medium). But, on Vitalogy, we find a Pearl Jam already about the study of how to stay alive while being fed into the jaws of a ravenous market. It is a caustic, angry record layering obnoxious, thorny bits with heavy doses of blistering critique aimed at those trying to eat them alive. It’s also brilliant and the executives surely cried all the way to the bank.

In 1973, Wendell Berry wrote the greatest poem ever. It closes like this:

“As soon as the generals and politicos
can predict the motions of your mind,
lose it. Leave it as a sign
to mark the false trail, the way
you didn’t go. Be like the fox
who makes more tracks than necessary,
some in the wrong direction.
Practice resurrection”
Manifesto: Mad Farmer Liberation Front

 In 1996, Pearl Jam released No Code and supported it with the most hard-headedly alienating tour they could. Boycotting any venue affiliated with Ticketmaster, contrary to the eventual non-monopoly findings of congress, left only a frustrating string of out of the way places hardly equipped to handle the logistics of hosting the most in-demand concert ticket in the country at the time. Now, No Code is not a bad record. Time has been very good to it, actually, but in 1996, it was the most un-Pearl Jam record imaginable. As for the tour, only the most hale and hardy fans had the fortitude to find and attend the shows. They may have been richly rewarded, but the tour was not a success in any business sense. Critics and executives alike thought Pearl Jam had lost their minds, committed career suicide on the day of their coronation. Pearl Jam™ was dead. The music industrial complex moved on (to boy bands. While Pearl Jam was confounding its predators like a fox, Lou Pearlman was manufacturing N*SYNC to put a stake in the heart of rock and roll). Pearl Jam blew up the brand. The dust settled and there was a band, freed of expectations.

What’s to love about Yield?

Despite the titular instruction of No Code (do not resuscitate), Yield was Pearl Jam’s resurrection. The loosest, most confident and enjoyable record in their now 10-album catalog. This is my love letter to my favorite album, not just by my favorite band, but by any band.

What makes Yield such a delight? It’s all in the timing. For one thing, there’s the matter of the band’s internal dynamics. They had actually become friends. (Given their brush with blinding stardom, it’s forgivable that it took them seven years.) This combined with their musical familiarity lends the record a tightness that comes across totally effortless.

Mike McCready and Stone Gossard truly find a great blend as a four-armed guitar monster. Gone is the standard division of labor (Stone’s arena-sized riffs driving Mike’s blues-drenched soloing). Instead, you have a record stacked with great guitar parts woven into a perfect tapestry. They spent Vitalogy and No Code dismantling the Pearl Jam™ guitar logic and Yield is the fruit of good labor.

Eddie Vedder’s voice is also at its on-record peak. He had matured past the soaring baritone that made early Pearl Jam so iconic (and then so imitated, and then so parodied), and he hadn’t yet reached the point where years of screaming his lungs out on tour took their toll. He’s singing at the peak of his dynamic and tonal range and it’s like a vintage tube amp—ranging from warm and rich to a broken-up growl depending on how hard he hits it. If the last time you heard Eddie Vedder sing was “Daughter”, you owe it to yourself to listen to “Brain of J”.

Then there’s the rhythm section. Admittedly, this is the area in which I am least articulate, but I will say that Jack Irons is my favorite of Pearl Jam’s many drummers. Instead of Dave Abbruzzese’s always huge all the time playing or Matt Cameron’s overly-intellectual approach, Jack Irons is expressive, a little off kilter, and always locked into exactly what the song needs. Alongside, Jeff Ament isn’t putting on a bass technique clinic. He’s just laying down a bottom end that’s so consistently spot on that it’s almost subliminal.

As an aside, the political timing of Yield is also just right. Midway through Bill Clinton’s lame duck presidency, the political anxiety of the W. years wasn’t even foreshadowed yet and the H.W. years were far enough past that Eddie Vedder was able to look away from his clear political enemies and explore. He’d also shaken the industrial demons from his back, and so he writes from a place of freedom he hadn’t experienced since he wrote the lyrics to Ten as a complete unknown. All of that earnestness is back, but matured and more contemplative. Lyrically as well as musically, the energy is consistently high and the gloom is consistently absent.

It’s all in the timing. Pearl Jam finally found some breathing room and all of that extra oxygen has the engine firing on all cylinders. There wouldn’t be Yield without the four records of frustration that came before it. The limitless potential purposefully surrendered makes this record what it is. That theme of retreat surfaces again and again. In “Given To Fly”, maybe the best Pearl Jam song of all, on “In Hiding”, and most poignantly in the album closer, “All Those Yesterdays”. “Don’t you think you ought to rest?” The song opens with the question that set the tone for all of Yield. After years and miles of fighting each other and an army of demands with hard-headed tours and albums, Pearl Jam finally got to a place where they could do what they do best, what they had always set out to do: make a rock record. The relief and joy is palpable. Yield is the sound of a dead band washing away their yesterdays. I love it so.

yield back

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[1] All that money attracts a multitude of feeders. Besides the record label with its army of lawyers, accountants, and marketing departments, there’s media. Radio stations. TV networks. Magazines and other print outlets. These all use the band to attract eyeballs, eyeballs that will also look at ads, ads that pay the bills. Then there’s concert venues and promoters who make a killing selling seats and beer. And, of course, all of these have their own lawyers, accountants, and marketing departments.

What is the influence of the music industrial complex? The easier it is to define and sell to a market, the more smoothly the music industrial complex runs and with less waste (I.e. money spent failing to attract the wrong audience). So there’s a lot of pressure to easily and effortlessly match music to audience. This pressures the musicians to make easy-to-package songs and it pressures the audience to conform to easily charted zones of taste. This is why you get so many disparate bands lumped under a term like ‘grunge’—a term they did not choose for themselves— and why you have so many bands that sound suspiciously like established artists. This is also why you are so aggressively sold a particular image to aspire to: the image carves a market segment out of the population. The ease of making money leads to all kinds of subtle attempts to turn people into either markets or products, which is a reduction.