Things fall apart, but the band plays on.
There have been a lot of years where the competition for CD of the Year was hotly contested, but I’ve always been able to make a call in the end. I think I probably got it wrong a couple of times (like in 1999 – as great as Godspeed You Black Emperor’s F#A#Infinity was, the passage of a decade’s time has made clear that The Pinetops’ Above Ground and Vertical was the better effort) but I made the call, nonetheless.
This year I just couldn’t do it. 2010 presented me with two CDs that, in the end, I couldn’t decide between. Part of the problem is that there’s a serious apples-to-oranges issue in comparing the two, but the bigger issue is that both records were just outstanding and deserving of the honor. So, for the first time since I’ve been doing my year-end Best of list, 2010 ended in a tie. Rejoice – we have twice as much incredible music to celebrate.
Fittingly enough, given that 2010 was the worst year ever, both CDs inhabit a lot of darkness. Mark Everett, aka E, and Eels explore the final chapter of a beautiful relationship gone bad and Munly, perhaps the most important member of the Denver scene, conjures a psychodrama from which there may be no escape.
None of it is terribly happy, but the best art often isn’t.
Munly & the Lupercalians – Petr and the Wulf
If you aren’t familiar with what’s generally called “the Denver sound,” we probably should start there. The term describes a dark (in some cases, very dark) brand of American and Western gothic that draws on alt-country, folk, traditional Americana, bluegrass and gospel. As Slim Cessna (of Slim Cessna’s Auto Club, one of the movement’s defining acts) has been known to suggest, it’s a lot more Western than Country, although if you dig deeply into the underbelly of Appalachia you’ll find headwaters that eventually feed both C&W and the Denver Sound. Bands associated with the Denver scene include The Denver Gentlemen, Slim, 16 Horsepower and the various incarnations of Jay Munly (solo, Munly & the Lee Lewis Harlots and Munly & the Lupercalians, as well as the Auto Club, of which Jay is also a key member).
When I say very dark, I’m talking primarily about Munly, who is perhaps cranking out the bleakest music being made in America these days. Steeped in a madness borne of both cultural and personal isolation, Jay Munly goes places that make Blue Velvet look like an Up With People extravaganza. The thing is, CDs like Petr and the Wulf (a retelling of the Prokofiev tale) and 2004’s Lee Lewis Harlots outing are every bit as brilliant as they are disturbing. I admit to being not much of a reviewer, so I encourage you to have at these excellent takes from Embo Blake, Matt Schild and Inchoatia.
In sum, Munly retells the story from the perspectives of several characters: Peter, his grandfather, the wolf, the hunters, Duk, Cat, and Bird. While the musical styles vary from bouncy gypsyesque to spoken word to the light-hearted, flute-driven offering from Bird, the overall effect is remarkably unified – this is not a collection of disparate songs, it’s a coherent suite, a concept album of the first order. Put another way, it’s not a selection of thematically related poems so much as it is a long poem in eight sections. And I use the word “poem” for a reason. While I usually resist any suggestion that a particular songwriter is a poet (poetry and lyrics are very different things, by and large), the lyrics for Petr and the Wulf stand on their own in ways that are quite rare. The misspellings of the characters’ names – Petr, Wulf, Duk, Gradfater – are merely the tip of a syntax that strips the language down into a backwoods oral tradition whose musical quirks demand the listener’s attention.
Twisted themes abound. Petr rescues Gradfater from Bedlam and then they set about trying to save and restore their family by imprisoning each other. Bird tries to deal with his abandonment by being a friend to Scarebeast. Duk’s idea of salvation lies in being eaten by Wulf. Wulf is consumed by his perceived betrayal by the people of Lupercalia, but he seems less concerned with being the beast who wreaks havoc on them than he is in playing the martyr to shame them. And the three hunters come bearing a proposition that stands to leave the town in worse shape than before.
Abandonment and betrayal. No one is whole, nor is there any promise of deliverance that doesn’t promise still more betrayal.
There’s a good PhD dissertation to be had in unwinding the depths of Munly’s narrative, and perhaps another beyond that in contemplating the deep-lying humor insinuated throughout the Petr and the Wulf cycle. In the end, the CD is a dense, complex and deceptively intellectual exercise, a shadowy passion play that reveals a little more with each listen and probably will continue to do so no matter how many times you play it.
Eels – End Times
Most popular musicians have, at some point or another, done a love song. And a break-up song. And a god-it-hurts-so-bad song. These things are as predictably rock and roll as tra-la-las, la-de-das, braindead drummers and groupies with self-esteem issues. When a thing has been done a zillion times it becomes ritual, and one performance of a ritual tends to be much like all the rest.
But occasionally an artist finds a way to do something truly special in the space where others have merely done what others do. 2010’s End Times is such a case. To some extent I think we just expect exceptional work from E (at least I do – not everybody seems to get his understated genius), but even by his standards this album is something special.
In brief, a relationship has ended and the woman he loved more than anything is gone, and gone for good. We’ve all been there. This cycle reflects on and attempts to vent the pain, tracking from it’s the end of the world to it’s gonna be all right. It’s a lonely affair because he’s not a kid anymore – when you lose this woman it has implciations for the spiritual integrity of your life. At 20, she can be replaced (pay close attention to “In My Younger Days”). When you’re an adult what you have invested is essential to your humanity and it’s not clear that what is gone can be recovered.
Those who know me well might read that last paragraph and get a sense that I’m projecting a bit, and they may be right. 2010 was a disaster for me in nearly every way, a year in which I lost more than I knew I had to lose. So much of End Times feels as though it were written specifically about and for me, and I’m conscious of the ways in which that sort of personal identification can color a man’s objectivity.
But not every broken heart ballad of the year clicked for me, and the things that make E’s reflections on loss resonate so genuinely have to do with the details. In “Gone Man” he steps up to the plate and accepts responsibility for the crash, he talks to the dog to stay sane (been there) and invokes the spectre of death in the form of a headstone and epitaph. He reaches out to the rest of us with “i take small comfort in a dying world/i’m not the only one who’s feeling this pain.”
In “A Line in the Dirt” he confronts the essential aloneness of who he is as a man:
i say “do you want to be alone?”
she says “no, i don’t wanna be alone,
but i think that you do”
In the title track he identifies closely enough with a crazy homeless man that it’s uncomfortable to listen to. His reflections on a suicide bomber in “Paradise Blues” are even more troubling:
kind of hard to blame somebody
for going to a better place
for thinking there’s some kind of magic
up there past outer space
“Unhinged” provides a glimpse of the nuanced battle we fight when things fall apart. He has accepted his culpability, but he also fights back against “a mean old girl behind her crazy eyes.” It’s important to him to understand the truth as fully as possible, and that means he can’t absorb all the blame.
i defy you to define me
in your crazy state
you don’t know which way is up
and it’s way too late
to ever fix all of the things
that you did break
not least of which is my heart
He follows with “I Need a Mother,” the moment where the excruciating depths of his own soul-searching is revealed. We’ve gotten deep into the self-analysis at this point, and no artist writes a song like this without paying a price. Then, in “On My Feet,” perhaps the most real touch on the entire disc:
i pushed the bed against the window today
so there’d only be one side
well it’s a little less lonely that way
but i’m still dying inside
when i wake up in the middle of the night
no one’s gonna tell me i’ll be alright
He concludes with the promise that he’s going to be all right – he just has to get back on his feet. And you know it’s true, but you also know that for a very long time it wasn’t all right and that he wasn’t sure that he could get back on his feet.
They say the devil is in the details, but sometimes angels live there, too. E’s salvation (revealed later in the year with the release of Tomorrow Morning) hinges on his willing to honestly read the details of the break-up as they were and to slog through the weeks and months and years of small pictures that, in the end, make up the big picture. If he hadn’t done all that, End Times would have been just another collection of tra la las. A beautifully crafted one, no doubt, but certainly nothing like the definitive break-up album he has produced here.