Sunday, December 30, 2007


Despite the commerce involved, we hope you will consider this our gift to you. Best wishes.

- Mimi, Alan & Zak

Sometimes I listen to Low's mini-album Christmas without the covers. Low's version of "Little Drummer Boy" is shoegazerrific in a way they wouldn't really be outside of it, the remix of "Joan of Arc," and maybe "Whitetail" and is the track they're probably best known for in many circles. (Thank you, Gap Christmas ads - the fact I can't find this one on Youtube is kind of sad) "Blue Christmas" is given an oddly sexy (because so chaste, despite the smokey nightclub ambience - Alan admits that it was "very strange playing all those jazz chords") reading by Mimi that makes it easily my favourite version of the song, and "Silent Night" is probably tailor made for the band's sound, especially at the time. They do it nearly a cappella and it's gorgeous, of course.

But strip Christmas of these for a listen or two, taking it from under thirty minutes to under twenty, and the shapes of the other songs emerge much more clearly. "Just Like Christmas," a "true story from our spring '99 tour in europe," got most of the good word, which makes sense because its Spector sleighbells and festively fuzzy drums marked at the time one of the band's bigger excursions into the pop realm. There's something almost candy-coated about the way the refrain sounds; it's too short to be much more than a trifle, but given how many different moods the album will explore it's nice to have a little uncomplicated joy ("The beds were small / But we felt so young / It was just like Christmas") to begin with. The band messed around with many different ways of doing the song until they hit on using Steve Fisk's Optigan, which they also used when Fisk produced The Curtain Hits the Cast. It's the Optigan that also gives "Little Drummer Boy" its luminous cloud feeling, so I kind of wish they'd use it again (although I do love the little portable organ they use now).

"Long Way Around the Sea," the title of which always reminds me of another song, is their only self-penned song here to dig into the history of Christmas. Here Alan and Mimi are the Three Wise Men; there's a straightforward telling of their story, and especially after the fizz of "Just Like Christmas" the solemnity s striking. There is the feeling of a great honour and a corresponding burden; when the angel tells them to avoid Herod on the way back it's practically a miracle but compared to the birth of Jesus it doesn't seem like much, to them or to us. As with so many of Low's songs from around this time, the really important part is the hushed grandeur they give to the simply repetition of a line: "Take the long way around the sea."

After the beautiful haze of "Little Drummer Boy" lifts, we get probably my favourite explicitly religious Low song ever, "If You Were Born Today" (also a single in 1997, b/w "Silent Night"). I've heard people complain that it's too religious, and I'm not exactly sure why. Minus a repetition of the first section at the end, here are the lyrics:

If you were born today
We'd kill you by age eight
Never get the chance to say:

Joy to the world and
Peace on the earth
Forgive them for they know not what they do

Blessed are the meek and
Blessed are the humble
Blessed are the ninety and nine

Deny the flesh
Deny all that's evil
Tonight you'll deny me thrice

It's that first section that probably leads Alan to say the song is "hard to talk about what it's about without making some boring social commentary." But for me the focus is more on what Alan picks out from what Jesus said. The first two lines of that section are obvious ones for Christmastime, but then "Forgive them for they know not what they do"? Ending with "Tonight you'll deny me thrice"? As always, Low's portrayal of Christianity isn't a self-righteous or sanctimonious one. The emphasis is on love and mercy, to be sure, but whereas our less savoury modern 'christians' leaven that with the kind of fear and hatred that Fred Clark memorably disassembles over at Slacktivist (Fred is, of course, himself an evangelical Christian, but he's a real one), Low leaven that with the sadness and peril of human frailty, along with a deep compassion for that frailty.

I was reading Slacktivist a little while ago when I got to this entry, which I think is worth looking at in some detail for the way it intersects with Low's religious themes. Fred quotes 1 Corinthians 10:13 (""No temptation has overtaken you except what is common to us all") and says of it: If you're a preacher, and if you possess the slightest bit of self-awareness, that's problematic. It means that preaching against any temptation or sin implicates your entire congregation and yourself as well. That can be really uncomfortable for all involved. Pick any of the seven deadlies or the 10 commandments and you risk alienating everyone in the pews and exposing yourself as less than perfect. Which, of course, Fred thinks we not only should do but have to do, and which is something that happens over and over in Low's music, implicitly or explicitly. Later, having gotten into G.K. Chesterton, Fred writes Chesterton, like Paul, could be a scold. But also like Paul he was never so foolish as to think that he could exempt himself when he preached against sin and temptation. Seeking such an exemption by taking aim at safe targets leads to self-delusion, smugness and complacency, and it goes against everything the Bible (and experience) teaches us about human nature. Seeing as Christianity isn't actually about judging others from a safe remove (and hell, I'm not even a Christian myself), you'd think that kind of insight would be less rare in our popular culture, but Low are one of the very few sources I've seen that seem to get it.

So like a lot of their more religious songs there's something both tormented and quietly ecstatic about "If You Were Born Today," and that's pretty heavy (especially if you bought Christmas because you liked that Gap ad). It's not that "Blue Christmas" is particularly easy going in comparison - in fact, it's the one time in their career when Low seemed to be taking tips from the Cowboy Junkies, a great band that could at best described as lugubrious. But it does shift the focus back to the here and now rather sharply. "Silent Night," recorded in Alan and Mimi's kitchen with a stereo microphone, is the one time on Christmas that a Christmas carol sounds just like that - like a carol, a traditional song that Low aren't so much transforming as just performing. That's not a complaint, mind you.

But after that, with some guitar strums and a few triangle hits, we get one of Low's hidden gems: "Taking Down the Tree." Given the brief length (2:44) and seemingly banal subject matter (written while actually taking down the tree!), you'd think this wouldn't be much; the lyrics suggest otherwise.

Careful, one by one
It is undone
Seems before it's over
It's begun

Another broken reindeer
Another candle
Another velvet ribbon
Another nosebleed

Winding up the lights
We set the star so high
So high
So high

From such humble beginnings (it sounds almost as if Alan is playing a bass ukulele at times!), "Taking Down the Tree" blossoms into a surprisingly lush, beautiful song, the closing harmonizations of "So high" being among the most blissful moments in the band's catalogue. I love that seemingly random "Another nosebleed" line, although Alan reveals that "the nosebleed refers to mim's dry weather problem." More than anything else, this song feels like Christmas to me - the quotidian cleaning up, the joy, the anticipation, the wonder (if you get in the right mood). When the keyboard and Mimi come in and Zak shifts into slightly higher gear on the last section, it's among my favourite moments in all of Low's discography.

We've still got one brief morsel left, though; "One Special Gift." Alan was going to sing it, but he "thought it sounded too much like smog," which I can see. So Mimi gets it, and adlibs the closing "...for one special guest" line that ends the album. The song is an especially slow, if short, crawl, and although the nieces and nephews and friends they buy gifts for aren't discounted (these days, I imagine Hollis would have to be in there somewhere), but the reverence with which Mimi sings of the one special gift is pretty special.

Also pretty special is the packaging; a rich red cardboard slipcase with a beautifully minimalist snowscape by Zak on the front, I love everything about it: the font, the silver ink, the snowflake design on the disc, and that little message from the band inside, still one of the most heartwarming things I've ever seen in a CD, despite the commerce involved.

Monday, December 10, 2007

The last time(?)

I should have posted here a week or so ago... I'm on my last push to get the first draft of my thesis out, and I can't really justify doing any more posts here until that's done. It might be a little while (end of January should be the very latest), and after that things should get back to normal on a permanent basis; editing and re-writing never takes as long as writing does. Sorry about the delay, as always there is an RSS feed available for those who want to keep tabs.

Monday, November 26, 2007

The Plan

I am not, as a rule, a fan of demo versions. Unless I get to them first (something that holds for most of us when it comes to music; broadly speaking, the people I know prefer the cover over the original if they heard it first, etc etc), in which case I don't tend to have much use for the finished version! Maybe I'm just not hearing the right ones; the demos I've heard tend to stick pretty close to what the band came up with originally, but the few I have that actually do something different (even as small as the lyrics changes in Wheat's initial versions of songs from Per Second Per Second Per Second... Every Second) are easily my favourites. Looking at iTunes right now, most of the few demos I have are for songs I don't have later versions of; most of the rest are from box sets. I have demos of Leonard Cohen's "A Thousand Kisses Deep" (two minutes of spoken word, mostly kept in the song but very different in feel) and Mogwai's "Moses I Amn't" (much subdued and pulsing), and they probably come the closest to demos that I feel stand as strong tracks in addition to the original finished versions as opposed to paling beside or superseding them.

"The Plan" (one of my favorite mim songs, Alan says) is a song where I think the demo is better than the finished version by a significant margin, and also an interesting example of a song that from demo to finished version keeps lyrics, melody and structure but has a massive difference in texture, tone and feel. The proper version is the second track on The Curtain Hits the Cast, and although it was never a particular favourite of mine, it worked well enough. "Anon" was creepy enough that having this much gentler, Mimi-sung usher us into the rest of the record (and particularly "Over the Ocean," the next track) was good sequencing. It's simple enough; for once the lyrics start immediately, Mimi measuring out the opening lines to her own barely-drumming and Alan's note-by-note guitar:

On the step you handed me
Pieces of the plan
At the gate you handed me
Pieces of the plan

The rest of the song (3:41, not epic but not short either) is just her repeating the line Can I hold it for a week? Eventually she's accompanied by herself, and Alan's guitar get fractionally lusher, but it never builds up to the kind of grand climax some of these songs do and that the first Mimi-doubling sort of suggests it might.

First available on a Shanti Project fundraising compilation, the demo was naturally enough brought to my attention by the box set. That's what they're for, right? Collecting up all the oddities that never made it to albums, showing you the workings of the band's creative process, all that. But the demo version of "The Plan" is very different (and better) than the album version in a few ways. A mere 2:51, it has the same lyrics and structure, and Mimi is audibly singing the same song as the album version. But Alan's guitar is more spindly than before, and the only sound other than the multi-tracked Mimis and that guitar is a gorgeous, well-chosen echo effect put on the vocals. They swell to greater heights and die down in more compelling fashion than the later one ever does. (there might be a brief bit of electric guitar distortion too, come to think of it) The song begins with just Mimi's voice, and it's so rounded out by long-hallway echo that you'd be forgiven for thinking she's a ghost.* She sings the lines a little faster, but there's still that sense of grace and patience you always get from a solo Mimi vocal, and the odd comfort of the song remains.

She just wants to hold it for a week, so you'll be getting it back; and you can tell it'd mean so much to her. What's it a plan for? Why is it in pieces? Why "on the step" and "at the gate" (both are rather suggestive locations)? Is this a Mormon or otherwise theological thing? If not, what's going on? What going on is that Mimi Parker has a great enough voice and enough control over it that she can make "Can I hold it for a week?" sound in turn liturgical, wise, compassionate, obsessive, loving and a bunch of stuff we don't have words for yet. The album "The Plan" is good; overlaid with the kind of atmosphere that suggests otherworldliness, the demo version is at least seven times better.

*As someone who still thinks the only really good song on the new Spoon album is "The Ghost of You Lingers" and who almost did his thesis on musical hauntology, you can imagine how much the demo seems almost designed to appeal to me more.

Thursday, November 22, 2007


I organize my CD collection a little oddly, at least right now. (NB. "right now" = "since I moved in to this apartment, in 2004 or so") My large, wall-mounted Ikea CD shelf fell when I was first moving in (you have no idea how much that upset me), and when putting stuff back on it, I decided this was the perfect opportunity to try and pare down the old CD collection. As I believe I've mentioned on TMW,TMW previously, I felt I had more CDs than I needed, and my new scheme was to only keep CDs that I would actually play. CDs I respected, even liked, that I never had the urge to listen to? Gone! I wanted to be someone who loved music, not just a collector, and I wanted my CDs to reflect that. I love the Beatles, sure, but I barely listen to them; Sgt. Pepper's and maybe Revolver should suffice. That sort of thing.

The piles of CDs adorning my desk, kitchen table and stereo shelf out in the front room of my apartment suggest that I've backslid on that a bit, but the spirit of the thing is still pretty important to me. That would be why only three and a half shelves of my CD collection are actually ordered, the rest a sprawling mess awaiting my decision as to whether or not I'll keep it. Oh sure, there are albums in the mess I know I'm going to keep, but I have a method! Since I keep some of the best/favourite tracks from every album in my "real" collection on my computer, I have to go through them, listen to them again and decide what to add to my massive "Sorted Music" playlist on the Mac (something that is rather rigourously guarded by me, and I guess constitutes my own personal radio or whatever). In the back of my head is the idea that when I have more free time I'll sort through it all, sell a shitload of it off and organize the rest (I've thinking recently of dividing by genre, and then within genre sticking with my tried and true and boring "alphabetical by artist, then chronological by title" structure). And I used to use the now seemingly defunct site to keep track of what was actually "in" my collection (I desperately need a replacement, hopefully a public one; Delicious Library looks neat, but I don't have a webcam). But I've let it, erm, slide.

What, you may ask, does that have to do with "Slide," another track from Low's debut I Could Live in Hope? Honestly, not that much. But this record is the only Low CD I own (well, it and the Christmas album, on which obviously more at a later date) that has yet to be filed in the "official" collection. It's going to be, of course; I long ago decided that Low are one of those bands, maybe the one band for me, where I am in addition to (and because of) my love of them also a collector. I didn't buy the "Dinosaur Act" CDS because it had any tracks I didn't have, after all. But aside from the two obvious standouts ("Words" and "Rope" - I already have the demo of "Lullabye" from the box set in iTunes) I have no real idea what to cull from I Could Live in Hope, so I'm leaving the matter open until I'm done the album in TMW,TMW. Since my normal practice is to play the song on repeat as I write about it, as I'm doing now, that means I'll have heard the whole album many times over, hopefully enough to pick a few more tracks to save for the playlist.

I'm not sure yet whether "Slide" will make it. Like most of Low's debut I find it pleasant but not exactly gripping, although there's some interesting stuff to find in it if you dig. Alan wrote of it, mim doing harmony to me works well, but my first attempt to harmonize to her isn't so hot. i remember this song hurt my hand to play on guitar. i like the echo-y dub drums. i love the half-spoken "you wait. . ." mim vocal.

Well, wow. I wouldn't have picked up half of those things, to be honest. I don't play guitar and so nothing about the clear, trembling, bright guitar notes struck me as anything painful to play, and I don't find the drums terribly dubby. I'm not sure I'd consciously noticed either Alan's slightly off-kilter harmony (which I actually love; they still kind of mesh, but sound separate as well, which sounds incredible) or the fact that in the second verse Mimi dips into spoken word for about half a line. I actually don't like that bit; if she'd done the whole line I think it would have been more effective. As it is, except for those small touches it's pretty standard for their work at the time; a minute of softly beautiful intro, then some brief, inscrutable lyrics, then an outro. The song makes me think of waiting in line at the third floor of the University Centre to fill out some paperwork:

They tell you come tomorrow
Nothing for you now
You listen so intently
And slide

Hearing only yourself
You wait for the truth
How can you get it
When all you do
Is slide?

Those first two lines of the second verse remind me, sadly, of too many undergrads (from both my own undergrad and now that I'm a TA), and mark an interesting shift in emphasis from the first verse. The blame, if there is any, seemed to be on the "they," and now it's on the "you." I've been doing a fair amount of sliding myself, in terms of thesis work recently, and the reproach of the second verse seems fair enough to me. Although one thing that's not quite fair is how warm and comforting and inviting Alan and Mimi's not-harmony makes that "slide" sound when they sing it.

PS. Interestingly enough, there are two other songs that I absolutely love by different bands both called "The Slide Song." Spiritualized's version, from their great Pure Phase album, is one of that album's most heavenly, smack-kissed drones of heartache. The Afhan Whigs' is one of the highlights of the second half of the perfect 1965 album, with a totally fucking undeniable chorus. Neither of the very different tracks ever actually use the word "slide" in their lyrics.

Saturday, November 17, 2007


Some sort of blare, stiffly echoing drums, the blare modulates down into a thick burble, and then

Oh my my
Little white lie
Swear I'm gonna make it right
This time

It's like a radio
Turning way down low
Telling me things I do not know
I know

Tonight you will be mine
Tonight the monkey dies
Tonight you will be mine
Tonight the monkey dies

The first time I heard "Monkey," a song I was prepared to dislike, it instantly became my least favourite Low song. Why was I prepared to dislike it?

- The title. I have an odd reaction to tracklistings of albums I'm anticipating. Either the song titles will sound 'cool' to me, and I'll anticipate it even more (see both Burial albums, for example), or else they'll sound stupid and ill-fitting, and I begin to dread the album. Most of the time in the latter case, once I've heard the songs the titles make sense (even if they seemed silly to me as stand-alone entities) and I often wind up liking them as titles quite a bit. I am aware this is a fairly shallow thing to do, and I think it stems from living in Kincardine before the advent of Napster and high speed connections; often, reading the allmusic entry on an album over and over was all I could do until the next time we passed through a city with an HMV, and I probably place too much emphasis on album art, album title and song titles as a result. For bands I already love (like Low), I can't say it's ever made me pass on giving a record or a song a chance; for bands I don't already know, though, I'm sure in the absence of strong recommendations it's made me miss out on some stuff. But we're all going to miss some stuff, and this is as good a rationale for sorting through the drifts of modern music as any.

- The change in direction. I mean, most of the time the only way I really love a band's pronounced shift in tone/sound is when I come to their latter work first (anyone from Tindersticks to Wheat serve as examples), and I was definitely a major fan by the time The Great Destroyer came out. I didn't have the box yet, but I did have all of the preceding studio LPs and I was deeply unsure that any sort of major shift in Low's sound would be successful. This seems silly in retrospect (I'm having trouble accessing the Stylus Archives, but my review of the record is if anything a bit conservative in its grade), but I remember actually being nervous before queuing up The Great Destroyer for the first time.

- The fact that I was reviewing it for Stylus. I asked for the next Low album after seeing the hatchet job someone long gone had done on Trust, but at the time I had no idea this was going to be their "break from tradition" album; I was stressed out over the idea of covering one of my favourite bands (writing about stuff you really love is never easy) and by the possibility that I'd have to say it sucked.

So the first few times through "Monkey," it was tough going. That chorus, menacing in a more Lynchian/nonsensical way than most of Low's, was a sticking point (what did it mean?), and I was unused to Alan being so overtly as opposed to implicitly aggressive (even with a great backing performance from Mimi). I hadn't adjusted enough yet, hadn't let go of what I hoped/feared the album would be and just listened to it on its own terms. On those terms, it's pretty special, especially as Low moved in a different direction later; I'll save most of my take on it as a great road album until "Silver Rider" or maybe another tracks, but ultimately it became the most reassuring Low album just because it shows that pretty much whatever Low turn their hands to they can succeed at. If they one day make a shitty, Give Out But Don't Give Up style rock album, I'll know it's not because they can't make great rock music.

And that's exactly what "Monkey" is, once I let it breathe; if the sign of a really great rock song is that it'll make you sing along to (and feel the significance of) pretty much anything, then my love of belting out "Oh, tonight you will be mine / Tonight the monkey dies" speaks volumes. I had a brief moment of wondering whether the song was a crypto-attack on Darwinism at first (which is, I am quite sure, manifestly unfair to the band), but it's definitely more personal than tat. The second set of verses, before we settle into the lengthy end choruses, is especially powerful (if still tantalizingly out of reach):

Now who's to blame
We used to be the same
Now you won't let me speak your name
What a shame

It's a suicide
Shut up and drive
We're never gonna make the light
But it's alright

I'm a big fan of the sentiment "shut up and drive," of course, and that almost staticky organ(?) part underlying the whole song adds reams of atmosphere, which repeatedly culminates in some awesome, thunderous cymbal work from Mimi between choruses (and accompanied by more organ and Alan's raging guitar). It's not my favourite on the album by any stretch, but when I play The Great Destroyer at work I definitely have to fight the urge to sing along and play a little air guitar.

Thursday, November 8, 2007


So let's talk about album tracks. As I might have previously mentioned, most of my favourite albums are very concise (I'm thinking of anything from Closer and Armed Forces to Phosphorescent's Pride and Drums and Guns). "Album tracks," as the term is usually conceived among music fans, don't recall occur in those cases; it's hard to say that "Isolation" or "Senior Service" or even "Hatchet" are filler. And longer albums that I love, like Trust, don't have filler, not exactly; but they do have songs that are valuable mainly in that they're aesthetic ballast, tracks that continue to convey the mood of the album or otherwise say or do something significant, but that aren't exactly highlights.

That's actually why I like the longer albums that I do; their scope and sprawl are just as important as the laser focus of some of my slimmer favourites. Trust especially; anything that's long enough and structured the right way to make me think of it as a vinyl double album (see my post on "John Prine") definitely qualifies as a record I love because of, not despite, its size. "Tonight" nestles in the middle of the second 'side,' one that's all about lulling you into complacency before grim Mormon fable "The Lamb" jars you back into uneasiness. This is the last track before "The Lamb" arguably tips Trust over the edge into a blackness it never recovers from (and who would want it to?), and it's suitably anticipatory.

It's the only Low song that comes to mind when I think of backwards music; the restless rustle of the backwards guitar and Mimi's not-quite-dubby phased out backing vocals are definitely the only Low track that make me think of My Majestic Star. Mimi's lead vocals (for, as with "See-Through," this is another solo turn for her, something that's been in painfully short supply recently!) are calmer and deeper than they sometimes are, carefully measuring off each line like it's a lullabye. She doesn't play drums here; it's just Alan and Zak (and presumably Tchad Blake, from behind the mixing desk) ebbing guitars in various ways behind here. It's not what you'd play as the curtains are about to come up for the first time, but what you might hear while they're still down.

A song like "Tonight" makes you wish that Alan was still gnomically parsing what Low's songs mean; the sound of her voice makes this track one of comfort, waiting, and hidden knowledge, but the sense of it eludes you:

Trying to keep time
Closer than we like
Memories still lie

Faces of the day
Pressed up to your spine
Blessings still to come

Precious things unsaid
As the night begins
Who will hang his head

I do love quoting lyrics, it's true, but the main reason I often just present full sets in these entries are of course two-fold: not only are they so short (if I wasn't giving each line its own space I'm pretty sure "Tonight" would take up about three lines) but I'm genuinely unsure which part is important enough to excerpt. "Faces of the day / Pressed up to your spine" certainly catches my eye in terms of sheer "what's going on here?" levels, but what does it mean? If there's a religious message here, then it certainly goes over my head (although really, "Tonight" is probably just yet another counterexample to anyone who still thinks of Low as a "Christian band" or what have you). That closing question, "Who will hang his head / Tonight," is going to come back in a very bad way in "The Lamb" once the last bits of guitar filigree unwind. But for now, all breath is bated; the show is about to begin (even if you've just heard "Time Is the Diamond" a minute ago), and we're all in our seats.

Monday, November 5, 2007


Aaaaaand we're back. Sorry about that; a heavy grad school/TAing/day job load, the death of Stylus, the trip to NYC to celebrate the death of Stylus - it's been a long month or so for me too, believe me. But I certainly didn't forget TMW,TMW (my thoughts on it ranged consistently from "fuck, I wish I had time to do an update on _____ tonight" to "oh god, I can't bring myself to work on anything right now... I'll do a post tomorrow, yeah, that's it!") during that span, and now that my responsibilities are less I should be able to get on with the project. I don't mean that in some kind of faux-tired "let's get this shit over with" kind of way; I'm still excited about it. Especially after running into what I think may be a deliberate shout out to one of Low's old songs.

I few weeks ago I caught up with the first third of the new season of Dexter, the improbably great show about a serial killer. I'll leave details about it on wikipedia for people who haven't watched (don't be scared off by the book descriptions if you read them, the show is different and much, much better). The last episode was called "See-Through."

Now, it says a lot more about me than Dexter that my thought when that title appeared on screen was "hmm, there's a Low song called that." I don't think you need to point out when you do one of these that you're a bit of an obsessive. But it's not a phrase you see in isolation that much, and usually when I've seen it, it's been without the dash. And while nothing in the actual episode suggests the song, it's certainly evocative of Dexter's path through much of the first season:

You were discovered
Over the dead

Only to find out
You were not
Even in the room

See-through but solid
Holy but complete
All will be followed
Seen to
Tended, none the least

Again, that's the whole song; only the middle of the 4:26 is taken up with Mimi's customarily luminous vocals, the rest being introduced by a slow bass pulse (apparently written by John Nichols before he left the band) and climaxing with Alan's increasingly forcefully pealing guitar part when Mimi sings the last line. I imagine I might be making it sound pretty standard, but to tell the truth I was pretty enraptured by this today; it's not exactly a stand-out track on the excellent Long Division (it comes after my beloved "Swingin'," for one thing), but in isolation it finally gets the chance to shine.

Admittedly a good deal of my current affection for "See-Through" stems from the Dexter connection, and the way that last verse manages to add some completely implicit menace to the proceedings (I, of course, am a huge fan of completely implicit menace). If she is singing to someone like Dexter, I doubt they'd be happy at being "followed, seen to, tended" after sort of getting away with it.... so maybe the second season is a better place to put "See-Through" after all.

The most cryptic part of Alan's comments about this song is one he echoes in a few other places: "we were listening to a lot of wire at the time." I love Wire as I love few other bands, and I really like Low's cover of their great "Mercy," but I'm not sure I hear any Wire influence on this one at all (and not just because Colin Newman and Mimi Parker are awfully far apart as singers). I'm generally a fan of finding out when musicians think a song sounds like a band or culture or anything like that when to me it patently does not; it reveals a little bit about our multiplicity when it comes to hearing, and it gives you a little insight. Sometimes this happens through titles (could "John Prine" be an example?), sometimes through comments. But in this case, it definitely has me listening to "See-Through" until I can spot the bit that sounds kind of like 154 - unless, of course, it's the mere fact that they may have unknowingly anticipated the likes of Dexter Morgan with this one. And if you don't think that's Wire-esque, I'd direct you to "The Other Window," just for starters.

Monday, October 22, 2007

Not dead

Apologies for the longer hiatus than usual; I've been up to my neck in grad school, which means things here will be sporadic for a while. But TMW,TMW will continue to update, and will finish. Unless I get hit by a car or something.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

...I Love

A simple little thing, a painfully sentimental ode in its original form, goddamned Countrypolitan backing and all. Tom T. Hall didn't exactly have much of a voice, and although the schmaltz of the original means its popularity is no surprise (I'd never heard it before, mind you), Low do a few things to improve it immeasurably.

Setting the song to quiet acoustic guitar and Mimi's voice gets things off to a better start, and while singing about how you love "Birds of the world / And squirrels" is still pretty fucking twee, it kind of works with her forthright delivery, even if she does sometimes sound like she's making about to laugh (her voice on "And squirrels" is fantastic). Her delivery of the punchline - "and I love you too" - is gorgeous in any case (Alan softly harmonizing).

I guess she didn't want to sing the verse about "coffee in a cup" (rhymed with "little fuzzy pups," naturally), which brings us to the other thing that means that not only does their cover of "...I Love" not outright suck, but I actually keep it in my playlist on my Mac; Zak steps in and rescues it. It's the only time (that I'm aware of) that he sings on a Low song, and while part of my love for that verse does stem from the fact that he sounds kind of like Todd Burns (hee!), his deadpan delivery is perfect for the song. Low walk the tightrope here of acknowledging in their performances that the song is, at times, mawkish, while still being sincere in their version of it. Which is something a million indie bands covering huge hits could stand to learn.

Also interesting, however, is that Zak changes the lyrics (I think); the one I found on Youtube of Tom T. Hall singing "...I Love" has "I love coffee in a cup / Little fuzzy pups / Old TV shows / And snow." Zak's last two lines are instead "Bourbon in a glass / And grass," which despite my distaste for Jack Daniels are one hell of an improvement.

And I love you too.

Monday, October 1, 2007


Hold me closer than that

It's a song of deep devotion, of desperation, of quiet strength, of amazement at our strength, of profoundly ineffable metaphor, of fear in the face of the future, of the human desire not to be alone, of the way the one we love is all we need, of the trap of material possessions, of obsession, of resilience, of love.

Hold me closer than that

It's no wonder they dedicated this one to the people of NYC, playing there in late 2001. "Closer" makes you feel like, as long as that one Other is with you, holding you, the world can't matter. It depicts with scraped-raw precision why we choose to give so much of ourselves to those we love, and why it hurts so much when they're not there any more, and why we do it anyways. Why, in short, we keep leaving ourselves so open. It's only openness which gets you to the point they're at here, where you can be honest in your desire and need and insecurity and both of you wind up singing the same song.

Hold me closer than that

Alan: "feels better when we play it slower, live. a love song, i guess - that's obvious."

Hold me closer than that

Ida Pearle's violin is probably the thing that makes Things We Lost in the Fire so beloved, and the sweet, low swing of it that introduces "Closer" is crucial. I hear drums and bass and some strings, but I can barely hear guitar at all (a fairly common thing for this album and its predecessor). After each verse or chorus the violin glides in again to repeat its motif, which doesn't quite echo the vocal melody but does manage to shadow the emotions therein. You might say that this song is half-way between the album version of "Will the Night" and their older material, but if anything it's stronger than either; more deliberately paced (although not necessarily slower) than pretty much anything else Low has done, it moves with the slow sweep of decades. But although "Closer" speaks with the quiet confidence of emotions that go down as deep as bedrock, there's still this feeling of crisis. Things we lost in the fire - there's a small drawing on the back of the album "Closer" is on with a little house in flames. Did their house burn down? Are they standing in the ruins? Are they all they need, and did they realise that before? "Closer" is talking about constant, modest truth, but also of the way life snaps us awake into realization sometimes.

Hold me closer than that

We all have our own dark, raging seas.

Hold me closer than that

"Closer" is song ultimately reduced to voice but not words. The violin and Zak's bass and a progression of "la la la"s as tenderly heart-rending as anything else this side of Readymade's "Hamburg" send us through the final minute; a plea, a celebration, an elegy, an evocation, a haunting, a duet. It's reductive and true and irrelevant to say that it's the rest of the song, the rest of the album, the rest of their career of wrapping voices around each other in microcosm. Alan and Mimi have written and performed a song about the scary, wonderful, inescapable embrace of love, about how we wake up one day and ask "how'd we ever get by?" About words we'd never take back and then, implicitly, about the question we ask when we're afraid we might after all. It is one of the most moving and beautiful songs about romantic love I have ever heard, because it refuses to avoid looking the terror, sorrow and uncertainty of love right in the eyes at the same time as it acknowledges the things about love that make it worthwhile despite all that. "Closer" tells us that in our relationships as in everything else, we are all we have, and our constant re-dedication to each other, to asking that question is all that keeps us together. It's the most perfect evocation of the sweet melancholy of needing someone that you will ever hear, and it couldn't be done by any one throat, or by any two conventional throats. It takes Alan and Mimi's most seamless melding, until you're not hearing two people singing together, or even just one person, but a relationship. If they ever do fall out of love, we will always know what it was like, and most of us have cause to be jealous.

Hold me closer than that

If I ever get married, it will probably have to be with someone who also wants to take our first dance to "Closer."

Hold me closer than that.

Thursday, September 27, 2007


There is fucking pounding (and pounding and POUNDING) and drilling and sawing and dropping and crashing and etc etc etc coming from the apartment below me, and it has been all day, since it woke me up at 10 am. Which would be a pretty normal time to wake up if I hadn't been out with coworkers until about 3:30 am the night before, and my throbbing headache probably wouldn't be persisting so long, in fact probably wouldn't have started if not for the racket.

It was there yesterday, it may not be there tomorrow (that's my suspicion, anyways). They probably went on break during the two hours I spent downtown doing errands. But they just won't shut up.

"Breaker" is based around four things: The opening, extremely odd drum machine shuffle (and if you didn't think drum machines can shuffle, you owe it to yourself to hear this one), the handclaps that keep monotonous time throughout, Alan and Mimi's strident vocals, and a fucking organ drone. It's the best/worst part of the song, three or four notes that just cycle, each lasting around five seconds. It does change tone, but all four are pretty abrasive. Coming after "Belarus" it's about as aggressive a track as they've ever put on an album. But not aggressive like "Canada" or even "Pissing." More aggressive like sitting next to someone on the subway and just saying the word "blood" under your breath over and over.*

After all, if "Pretty People" was a sort of warning about how far Low have come since "Walk Into the Sea," and "Belarus" is a reassurance that they haven't forgotten how to be pretty, then "Breaker" (and its choice as first single from Drums and Guns) is confirmation of which way we're going. It sounds nothing like they used to sound, even circa The Great Destroyer, and a piercing negativity surrounds both its sound and lyrics:

Our bodies break
And the blood just spills and spills
But here we sit debating math

It's just a shame
My hand just kills and kills
There's gotta be an end to that

There's gotta be an end to that

There's some pretty amazing backwards guitar between the second verse and the last line, which again isn't pretty so much as bracing. The pokey, syncopated drum machine stutter and handclaps up against the steady, biting drone of the organ (the portable, WWII vintage military chaplain's one I saw them use live, I believe) makes for something stark and bleak, and Alan and Mimi serve the sound not be resorting to prettiness or softness, but a kind of blaring clarion call approach that they've never used too often. It's not as harsh as, say, the "la la la"s at the end of "John Prine," but it's much closer to there than the gentle tone of "I Started a Joke."

They also performed the song live for the Daytrotter Sessions, which is a version much closer to what I saw in concert. The guy there talks about Sparhawk's "voice that couldn’t break glass if it were made of hammers," but I think he's got it precisely wrong. A few lines from Darnielle's "Wild Sage" (which he gaze a stunning, breath-stealing performance of on Tuesday) sums up Alan's voice here and elsewhere much better: "And then I think I hear angels in my ears / Like marbles being thrown against a mirror."

The live version is strikingly Crazy Horse-ish at times, and certainly retains the album version's feel for blare and finger-poked-in-eye tone. Alan's line about "debating math" brings to mind "Death of a Salesman" (again; I need to get to that one soon) but his basic point, about the way most of our lives are wasted compared to what's really important, is much bigger and much more bleak than that. "My hand just kills and kills" doesn't have to be sung from the perspective of a soldier to make sense, if you think about what makes our modern Western lifestyles possible. Drums and Guns is the first Low record to actually register as judgmental, although what saves it to me is that unlike practically everything else I've ever seen/heard/read that deserves that tag, Low manage to avoid self-righteousness. In that sense (although only that sense), this album is their The Holy Bible. And in their way, both are like the construction this morning.

You know you should get up, you know you should have some water and an Advil and some healthy food. You stay in bed until 11:30, don't eat until 3 and then it's takeout. You're going out to a series of alcohol-related events this evening as well. It's times like this that the construction is worth it, as a spur to get you out of sitting in your apartment. And "Breaker" might actually penetrate, might actually get you to think about or even better to do something about the way we all live (the song title is both slightly mysterious and massively suggestive, eh?). The difference is, of course, "Breaker" lasts less than three minutes and sounds awesome and I choose whether or not to play it. The construction sounds are still going and I have no idea when they're going to stop.

"Breaker" also features a video in which Alan, dressed in an army uniform, eats an entire chocolate cake while Mimi and Matt clap away impassively behind him. At one point he reaches down to grab a second glass of milk. Nobody sings on camera.

* Thank you, Douglas Adams.

Monday, September 24, 2007

We are what we are

Ugh, I was going to try and get an entry done this morning but I'm kind of rushed and as a result inspiration is abandoning me; sadly, this is a problem because the Mountain Goats concert tomorrow night means I probably won't have a chance to do another one until Thursday. Hold tight, people; I may be slow, but I am persistent, and unlike sadly many of the blogs linked at the side I will be sticking with this. We just have to have a lull from time to time.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

I Started a Joke

Apparently Zak suggested covering the Bee Gees; a sentence that those who only know them from Saturday Night Fever and on might find kind of horrifying (although, I don't know, I think Low, especially 'classic' Low, tackling disco sounds kind of appealing...). But this was the Bee Gees of Idea and Odessa which is a very different, much more Beatlesque thing indeed. Alan said "someday we'll cover their whole first record," which is an idea that I can only hope he still finds interesting. Better than the Walkmen doing Nilsson, anyways.

I can't decide if I like the original (the only thing Robin Gibb has ever sung that I've loved is the demo of "Sing Slowly Sisters" I got on my computer which is, quite frankly, fucking spooky), and given the weirdness of the lyrics I'm not even sure what I think of Low's decision to cover it (although hey, if it's good enough for Faith No More, who I never would have guessed would tackle this one straight, then why not?). But it turns out okay.

Crucially, Mimi sings lead, with Alan keeping himself to backing "ohhhh ohhhh"s. He would have done a good job too, but given the cruel twist in his voice that is his greatest strength I could see him making "I Started a Joke" as near painful to listen to. It's a song of teenage self-pity, something that only works if sung with total conviction, but that could get to be too much if sung by the guy who invests "John Prine," "Breaker," and so on with such power. Which doesn't mean I think Alan takes the song more seriously than Mimi or anything, just that I'm not sure he could sing it with the lightness she brings to "I Started a Joke." (then again, the Journey cover suggests I'm thinking about this too much)

I really like Low's approach to covers (do plenty, but keep them off the albums, basically), as their sound even now is different enough structurally from a pop song like this one that it'd stick out like a sore thumb on any of their records. But without slowing it down too much or altering the melody they make it unmistakably their own, to the extent that the first time I heard it I went "of course, of all the Bee Gees songs that's the one that sounds the most Low." I think it's an example of their sense of humour, actually, to play it so straight, especially for a compilation benefiting the late LA club Jabberjaw, one of the band's first and favourite clubs to play. This one isn't a "Down by the River," it isn't even a "Blue-Eyed Devil" (where Low do exactly what you'd expect them to do to a very un-Low like song, albeit to great effect). Hell, this isn't even as radical a cover as Cowboy Junkies' take on "Sweet Jane" or "Powderfinger." It strips the quavery urgency from the Bee Gees' version, mostly due to Mimi's patient drums and laid back vocals, but she doesn't turn it into a joke. She doesn't give the "I looked at the skies" part the vocal stick that Mike Patton does, but the song does go more dramatic there; the difference is in the calm it returns to with the "I finally died" part. Like all good versions of this song, the tone is different enough once they get to "I looked at the skies" it's as if a different, and better, song has broken into the rather silly "joke/crying," "crying/laughing" structure of the verse. There isn't really a chorus, but you don't notice that the first couple of times, which gives you an idea of how catchy the various parts are.

It's an interesting (for better or worse) song done well. Not exactly the most earth-shaking thing Low have done, although the fact that some have theorized that the song is sung from the perspective of the devil is all kinds of interesting. It's the Low song you can put on a mix tape for your mom without worrying. Nothing wrong with that, really.

Monday, September 17, 2007

Throw Out the Line

1. Okay, so with grad school and my job(s) et al, clearly any sort of real scheduling is beyond me. I'll be trying to do entries as often as possible. Please be patient, and maybe utilize our handy dandy RSS feed? It's sad to see so many other oeuvreblogs slow or even stop, but I promise you TMW,TMW will keep going until it's done, no matter how long that takes. I may only manage an entry or two (or three) a week for a while, though.

2. Often with Low's songs, especially from the Long Division/The Curtain Hits the Cast period, my impression of each track in my memory when I'm not actually listening to them can be reduced to a single glowing moment. Often this moment is the chorus/refrain/title, and so when I think of the song I tend to focus on that moment to the exclusion of all else. While writing TMW,TMW I've noticed that tendency and have started trying to compensate for it. It's mostly worked, and having Low songs I know and love surprise me has gotten correspondingly rarer. But "Throw Out the Line" still did - so much of the song for me is that lambent moment when Alan and Mimi call out "throw out the line" that I'd remembered it as starting the song. In reality you have 20 minutes of prime watery guitar and unhurried cymbal/snare timekeeping (plus bass, back there somewhere, in that early-Low way where I can never quite place it). It's that trick they pull again, where the emotional/literal content of whatever they're singing when they sing like that is utterly subsumed by the way they sing, until "throw out the line" might as well be a source of comfort, hope, and love. They sing the title twice before the rest of the lyrics, and then four time after. For once it's those first two times that are more important, gifting the beginning of the song with a kind of still light that evokes images of connection and aid more than the rest of the song really winds up warranting; at least, if you can get past that surface impression and actually pay attention. I'm not being facetious; it actually is difficult when Alan and Mimi sing like that.

3. The rest of the lyrics are pretty interesting. It's apparently "about a friend from school who was an oceanographer in alaska," and also contains "the epitome of our water theme hang-up" (cf. I guess "Sea"? When Alan writes that I go "oh right, I guess they were kind of into water at the time," but I have a damn hard time thinking of examples other than the aquatic tremble of Alan's amp). I've got family in Alaska (the Kodiak Islands, actually) and have been up to visit, and maybe that's why "Throw Out the Line" is more redolent for me of wilderness than most of Low's work ("Sunflower" is the only other track I can think of that does that, and for similarly irrational/personal/obscure reasons). But in any case, it's interesting that the other lyrics aren't broken up by any renditions of the title refrain, and don't even really have a verse break between them, although the topic does seem to change half way through:

Man overboard
Passenger fall
Maybe the angels'll take him
Come back no more
Bride of my thoughts and anger
Nothing to show
Patience and strength come springtime
Where will you go?

Some of it makes sense with the story of Alan's friend - "Man overboard" works with oceanography, and "Patience and strength come springtime / Where will you go?" definitely sounds like Alaska. But what I wonder, again, about Alan's songwriting methods when there was some sort of germ from people/situations in his real life, is there actually a more sinister/involved backstory than he told us? Or did he just tend to build on this kind of drama and menace from the bare facts? I'm inclined towards the latter (seems like a more regular way to do things), but I wonder sometimes.

4. It's interesting how different Alan's take on the song from inside is, a regular feature of Low's old song backgrounds page. He says "wish i would have relaxed a bit on the vocal. sounds like someone's stringin' me up," but I really don't hear it. Honestly, his voice sounds more pinched on "Swingin'" among others, and mostly what I think of his vocals here is how smooth and clear he sounds along Mimi. He definitely sounds relaxed to me, but who knows - if he'd done it the way he later wished he did, maybe I'd love the results even more.

5. I picked "Throw Out the Line" mostly because after spending the weekend at a paddle-in camping site at Algonquin Park with family, I've definitely been feeling kind of wilderness-y. And also because the single best moment of the weekend was definitely sitting in a canoe with my girlfriend in a completely still lake, the dusk setting, mist coming off of the water, and hearing silence for the first time in years. I wouldn't have wanted to hear this song then, but its calm inevitability (another quality of those years that Low have mastered and thus moved past) recalls the moment for me, especially given the nautical theme.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007


In the long interregnum between The Curtain Hits the Cast and Secret Name, Low made their most significant EP. At 35 minutes, Songs For a Dead Pilot might as well be a mini-album, and the stuff here is more striking than anything from the Transmission EP or any of their other small collections. It's telling that SFaDP is the one of the few EPs that isn't collected on A Lifetime of Temporary Relief, and although I've only had access to these tracks for a short while I already know it's one of my favourite Low releases.

It also seems to be one, at least from Alan's old notes, with significant input from Zak. For Landlord Alan notes that "zak brought the rough idea in. it's about trying to make music in your tiny appartment. you always sound cautious and tiny," which is an interesting place for a song to start from. And although the song is nearly seven minutes, it definitely holds pride of place as the most painstakingly introverted track Low has made yet, even if the lyrics do venture a bit further afield:

the landlord in mind, as
the microphones pick up
the soft ones.

the carpets in mind, as
the microphones pick up
the soft ones,
the loud ones,
the slow ones,
the bright ones,
the meaningful ones,
the distance,
the good pets,
the wordless,
the stateless.

The intro to "Landlord" sounds pretty conventional for Low, post-The Curtain Hits the Cast, but as the first two minutes wind their way to the beginning of Alan's vocals things actually get slower and smaller. Everything but the ever-more-gently played guitar slowly reverses out of view, and then Alan (sounding as if he's singing through a sock) tremulously pleads with himself to keep it small, so we don't get kicked out.

But that second... "verse" seems inadequate, but you know what I mean... turns into a plea to consider the value of silence and of listening. As Alan stops singing at four and a half minutes the drum and bass come back in and the guitar strum gets stronger, brighter, but it all stays to a level that wouldn't rouse someone sleeping above or below. The brief, repeated guitar hook is one of the few ones in a Low song that I could imagine as part of a sped up (normal speed) noisy rock song, something I could see the Retribution Gospel Choir or especially the Black Eyed Snakes whipping out. Here it's quieter than the rest of the song. But the microphone picks it up.

Monday, September 10, 2007

In the Drugs

Sometimes you get so tired (cf. the sound of Bowie's voice during "Sometimes you get so lonely" in "Be My Wife"). I accidentally stabbed myself in the arm with a knife that was in the drying rack, trying to put a cup in the sink. I keep remembering this blog at night and forgetting it in the morning (I'll be better, I hope, now that I'm back at school and not working so much). I have to see people to talk about money. I have to see people to talk about school. I have to teach people. How can I teach people?

If there is a song by Low that functions like your mother giving you a hug, stroking your hair and saying "there, there" does, it is "In the Drugs." Which is utterly perverse. Gerry Beckley from America sings backing vocals. Marc Gartman provides pathologically spectral banjo (of all things). Bobby Woods plays organ and accordion. The song feels more syrupy than normal, but in a good way; the thick tone of the organ? The wonderfully fluted tones of Mimi's backing "ahhh ahhh"s (as opposed to her echoing Alan's lines)? The way that, twice, the banjo plucks slowly against the calm revolving of the voices? On the chorus Mimi stomps a few drum beats, but this is really about the accordion dipping low as "breaking like dolls / singing like birds / we always get what we deserve."

It's not sinister, for once. Any more than the Stoics were sinister. What you read into a phrase like "we always get what we deserve" is up to you, of course, but Alan sings it with a sad smile on his face, and Mimi breathes out the accompaniment like only someone who really loves their partner can manage. That one line, more than anything else probably, sums up what's wonderful and terrifying about the vocal bond between the two; how vividly the pulse of their life together seems to spring from that coo and sweep, how shockingly self-sufficient it seems.

I was a child
I was on fire
But I stayed alive while all else died

How is that not stark and foreboding like dozens of other Low songs? How did they summon up the plush, loving regret that turns that opening into sanctuary and resilience (albeit muted), not warning or reproach? Is there some hidden resonance with Beckley's inextricable backing tones? The unutterably mournful pause for organ/accordion near the end, does that transform things? The banjo shouldn't work. Especially with all that reverb (Tchad friggin' Blake, after all) and especially airdropped in so rarely. The verse/chorus melody is one of their sweetest, to be fair, but still. What alchemy pastes over the oblique, fragmented, probably meaningless lyrics? Why do I find myself turning to "In the Drugs" for comfort again and again?

I held my breath
What could I say
And I closed my eyes like Marvin Gaye
But now I've had enough

And Trust is indeed where Alan has had enough. God only knows who "You had your plan / A heavy hand," but the use of the the singular for plan makes me wonder. When did Marvin Gaye close his eyes? When he was shot by his (F)ather? Josh Rouse's "Marvin Gaye," from his album Home, is similarly cryptic. There is so no other song on Trust at all like "In the Drugs." I am not sure this anything else like it on any Low album. There are better songs on Trust, more beautiful ones. But none circle around the sad knowing/loving of this one and "we always get what we deserve," the moment of stillness that succeeds that line until Mimi pitches upwards again into "ahhhs" and they play the chorus with the subtlest possible muscle.

The line is supposed to be "It's in the drugs," repeated four or five times, and that seems to be what Mimi (and Beckley?) is singing. But most of the time, Alan sounds as if he is singing instead "It's in my drugs." Another clue. Or another resonance. Or nothing. I'd like to think I can still mostly be sort of objective about Low's music, but not this song. It means everything; as Tal Rosenberg at Stylus said once, "I've always been a firm believer that the best art somehow gives us a beautiful, vivid, and yet still vague impression of life and its meaning." He was talking abot a novel, or maybe a movie, but I feel that way here. To try and reduce the complexity of what I feel when I listen to "In the Drugs," how I feel lifted and comforted whether I was down or not, is to do the song violence, to mutilate it while cramming it into language. It is sufficient, and although I know not everyone would agree with me on this song, I hope to whatever God or Gods you have that you've heard something that does that for you as powerfully.

Wednesday, September 5, 2007


It's weird, that deviations from my preferred pace here at TMW,TMW come from both being over worked, from being too active, and also from being too down. It's been a semi-shitty week, but today at work it blossomed into a full on storm of crap (probably the least pleasant shift I've worked yet, for a variety of reasons, and I've been working 6 days a week for a month or so now) and although I am supposed to be out drinking with friends I am sitting here staring at my keyboard. I even helped arrange tonight, there are people at the bar I would very much like to see, but I just don't want to leave the apartment. Don't get me wrong, I'm not depressed or anything, just feeling that finely tuned combination of exhausted, aching, demoralized and annoyed at humanity to keep me in for the night. Among my annoyances right now is that I can't remember what "Dragonfly" sounds like.

I've lent Drums and Guns to a friend, you see, and didn't rip it first. I can remember the lyrics and the melody, of course; but one of the things that makes this album and this song so great is the actual feel of the sound. I mean, I can YouTube up some live video but that only gets at part of the bitter, wasted beauty of the album version of "Dragonfly."

The main reason I wanted to hear this song tonight is for the way Alan sings "The lines of history / Some things should never be / Why do we even try? / There's no such thing as dragonfly pills," possibly the most negative section of any Low song (suggestions for rivals welcome in the comments, of course). I mean, he'd been singing a half nonsense, half significant account of dragonflies and pills and now comes a sudden disavowal, one that sounds angry with both us and himself for ever having taken him at his word. This review of the album is so stupid it's frustrating, and not because he doesn't like the album; the section on "Dragonfly" makes about as much sense as taking the Bible to be literal throughout, and the fact that Elliott seemingly has no faculties to perceive allegory, metaphor or even hallucination should give you an idea how well he does with the rest of Drums and Guns. Blustering that "Dragonfly" is "preposterous to the point of parody" assumes that the song is a straight, literal narrative, and that shows both such a lack of imagination and inferential charity that it makes my head hurt. And for christ's sake, this is music; even if the lyrics were as dumb as that review suggests, is there no dispensation for the way they hang in the air against that backing I can't quite summon to mind? The way Alan and Mimi wrench all possible pathos out of the refrain of "Maybe you're right" and leave it bleeding?

But I mean, one badly written review stumbled onto while looking for the album version of "Dragonfly" isn't really the point. Cloaked in an unintuitive narrative we have maybe Low's most despairing song. Is it worse to decide that you must have more "dragonfly pills," or to give up and decide that there's "no such thing"? I'm not sure whether there's supposed to be an anti-drug slant to the song, or any drug slant, but I do feel as if the "dragonfly pills" stand in for the potentially harmful but liberating effect of drugs, art, love, intoxication in general, and so the end of the song feels to me like a surrender. But a knowing one, and one done with full knowledge that our surrender is the easy and meager way out. Alan sounds not just upset but disappointed.

It's not, importantly, "why did we try?" but "why do we try?" That's the kind of zero-sum, overreacting, almost masochistic defeatism that doesn't make for a tremendously healthy lifestyle applied all the time, but then again we don't feel that way constantly (or at least I don't, and I hope Alan doesn't). And in measured doses, on the right kind of nights, that kind of scorched-earth pessimism can be exactly what we need.

Thursday, August 30, 2007


I have been laid low by a combination of booze and hot peppers; sadly, my head now hurts far too much to think, let alone type. Back tomorrow.

Wednesday, August 29, 2007


So it's Covers Week here at TMW,TMW which (like all things here that make it look at all like I have a plan) is an impromptu decision based on me not having any particular song I wanted to talk about. I've done a few of these previously, of course

After "Down by the River," one of my favourite of Low's many covers, I thought that maybe I should cover the only cover that the band have included on one of their studio albums, apparently because "we just messed with it in the studio and kramer went nuts and insisted we do it for the record." It's certainly got the rich, almost watery tone to Alan's guitar (and even Zak's bass here) that Kramer brought to the first album, and it makes a perfect after-dinner mint for I Could Live in Hope, after the darkly ambiguous/humourous "Rope" that, as I said in that entry, feels like the 'real' end of the album.

I'm a sucker for that approach, one Low adopts as well on The Curtain Hits the Cast, Secret Name and Long Division. Having a lengthy, in some way weighty song followed by a brief contrapuntal closing track is something I think works extremely well (although I almost prefer the Great Destroyer and Drums and Guns approach of two somehow linked or contrasting shorter tracks, which is what gives the end of those albums such oomph), and it's something Low are quite excellent at.

And this is "You Are My Sunshine," albeit with truncated title to fit in with the rest of the one-word titles on I Could Live in Hope. Everyone knows "You Are My Sunshine," and most people agree that it's pleasant. But while Alan and Mimi's cooing duet delivery of the lyrics are indeed kind of heartwarming, that's partly in contrast to the lyrics. See, the version I know from summer camp, kindergarten etc is this:

You are my sunshine
My only sunshine
You make me happy
When skies are gray
You'll never know dear
How much I love you
Please don't take my sunshine away

There's already a melancholy undercurrent there, one that we normally ignored when belting it out at the top of our tiny lungs, but Low's minor key version brings it out. It's not lugubrious or even actually sad, but it's more a song you sing to someone when everything's going wrong for reassurance and support than what you hum to yourself on a nice day. And then there's the middle verse, which I'd never heard before:

The other night dear
As I lay sleeping
I dreamed I held you in my arms
When I awoke, dear
I was mistaken
So I hung my head and I cried

They end their version with another rendition of the first verse, but man! This one is pretty rough. "Please don't take my sunshine away" has a whole new connotation thanks to these lines; at best it could be about missing your sweetheart when they're on a trip or what have you, but something about that verse and Alan and Mimi's unhurried, deliberate delivery of the lyrics make it even sadder. This sort of thing - taking a cheery children's song and making it kind of heartwrenching - is why some wag came up with "sadcore" as a term. It doesn't hole for Low's music as a whole, but it definitely seems fitting here.

Alan says of the song "i used to work at summer camps for mentally handicapped kids and this song was by far the most popular camp song. we thought by slowing it down it would bring out the very sober, depressing theme of the lyrics. a lot of those old folk songs are like that..." That makes sense, and back in 1994 such an exercise would have been a lot more novel than it seems today. And again, it's not as if "Sunshine" actually dips into bathos, which a lesser version would. But heard on its own as opposed to as a sleepy, weepy lullabye after "Rope" it's not terribly successful, unless you just really love that melody from years of repetition.

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Down by the River

Back in the Audiogalaxy days I ran into something that purported to be Low covering Neil Young's immortal Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere chestnut "Down by the River" (you know, where Neil shot his lady). Along with "Cowgirl in the Sand" from the same record "Down by the River" was one of the songs that convinced me that I did in fact love the electric guitar and Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere will probably always be among my favourite albums, so I salivated at the prospect. In retrospect, that was one of the most exciting things about Audiogalaxy/Napster/etc - the way you could find stuff you never, ever would have guessed a band would do.

It was slightly less exciting to discover that "Down by the River" dated from the split In the Fishtank EP that Low did with the Dirty Three, a band I did not know at the time (Whatever You Love, You Are has since become a favourite). Even more than that, though, and even sooner, I was profoundly disappointed in the song's extremely low levels of thrust even for Low. I haven't heard the rest of the EP, having never stumbled onto it, and back when I was younger this track kind of steered me away from seeking it out on trips to Toronto and the like.

Whereas Young's original fills its 9:13 with scorching, furious guitar and repeated vocal crescendos, the 9:37 that Low and the Dirty Three create begin with a full 5:30 or so of restless, almost formless spots of noise, something that might be tuning up, radio static, the worlds quietest, non-horn using free jazz band, sounds that remind me a bit of the opening and closing sections of Spiritualized's great "Rated X."

At at the three hundred and thirty second mark, all we get is a brief hint that the guitar (Alan's?) is going to repeat the figure from "Down by the River." Mimi starts singing around the six minute mark, and the rest of the song gets more and more conventional although remaining slowly paced and lovingly low key. But by 7:45, even that constant background hum of static drops out, and we're left with Mimi, Jim White's drums, Zak's bass and Mick Turner and Alan's guitars. Warren Ellis' violin never makes an appearance, which is a damnable shame. The chorus doesn't get sung until after the static recedes.

It's an incredibly odd choice at first, shoehorning most of the appeal of the track, and all of it that sounds like its ostensible source material into the back half and mostly the back third. You do get what you came for (Alan and Mimi's wonderful chorus, the way Jim White's drumming both meshes with Low perfectly and does things completely differently from Mimi, suggesting a different direction that one might argue they've belatedly followed with Drums and Guns), but first you get quite a bit else, and that else is even fairly off-putting.

The genius of the cover however, as revealed by further play, is the way that the glowingly hymn-like delivery of the Young song arises from the shattered, quiet mess that rattles around the track art first. It's as if you're rooting through a trash heap and as you continue one by one pieces lock into place until suddenly you're looking at a watch or something, one which is wholly unexpected and yet perfectly natural. In retrospect you can remember feeling something which wound up being the gears coming together into a system, but at the time it just felt like another shift in the pile of junk.

I don't have too many Neil Young covers (pretty much this and Mercury Rev, a little stoned, singing "Cortez the Killer" on a Deserter's Songs-era radio show), but I'd guess that even if I had a dozen more I wouldn't find them as satisfying as I now find the prolonged, audible birthing process of "Down by the River," which seems a lot more precious when you hear it in this form. The Low of 1999 were never going to do a raging, full-on version of the song and it probably wouldn't work anyways. But hearing it dilated like this is like watching The Deer Hunter, where the lengthy prologue makes the rest more effecting, especially now that I've heard the Dirty Three and can tell how careful a balance of both bands' sounds the song is.

Also, and you can guess what I've been doing recently, listening to Low and the Dirty Three's "Down by the River" a second time is like watching the "Wee Britain" episodes of Arrested Development a second time, because suddenly all the stuff you thought made sense now really makes sense; those episodes might be the show's best because it finally pulls the same trick on us the viewers that it always did to its characters and lets our own preconceptions colour what we're hearing. The second time we have different preconceptions and those episodes (already funn) become four times as funny, clever, an affecting. So it is with Low's Neil Young cover.

Monday, August 27, 2007

Sleep at the Bottom

A welcome rarity today at TMW,TMW; I'm tackling "Sleep at the Bottom" at the request of a reader, the redoubtable Robert P. Inverarity of the fine Fragments of a Cale Season oeuvreblog. He mentions that this track is pretty atypical for the band, as "Musically, it seems to lack the creeping malevolence that marks a lot of their catalog, though the lyrics do seem a bit sinister." I'm not sure how much he knows about the song, but there's definitely a reason for the difference we both hear in this one: "Sleep at the Bottom" is a spur of the moment collaboration with members of Piano Magic and Transient Waves, written on the spot.

The latter band are described on allmusic as existing "on the borderline between ambient electronica and trippy psychedelia without tipping too far into either direction," and the quixotic Piano Magic get the following description: "The lone thread running through Piano Magic's records, aside from Johnson's presence, is a sense of wistfulness. Johnson has explained his desire to soundtrack memories, and with that, Piano Magic has found their niche." Two acts, then, that certainly seem as if they'd be sympathetic enough to Low's sound (and vice versa) to make a good collaboration.

And yet, while "Sleep at the Bottom" is definitely a good song I can't help hearing more Low than anything here. Lauren from Transient Waves presumably provided at least some of the guitar here (the echoing, searching lead that makes the middle eight so stunning is her, I'd imagine) but what the various personnel from Piano Magic provided I'm not sure. That steady, calming bass pulse that runs throughout the song is, if not Zak Sally, at least very Sally-esque, and the spare kettle drum and snare hits that softly guide the track forward certainly sound like Mimi. The only vocals I can discern are Alan and Mimi's. Given Transient Waves' low profile and the ever shifting, protean sound of Piano Magic maybe what "Sleep at the Bottom" really reveals is how sympatico these three bands were in 1998. Low had never even met Lauren before, and yet the two brief accounts Alan gives of the song (from the box set and the old song backgrounds page) not only emphasize the on a whim nature of the collaboration but also make the whole thing sound very easy and natural. Low were in London, these other guys were around, bam - a song (and a single, on Rocket Girl records).

But while most of the parts I can put my finger on sound like Low, the result is definitely different. Robert's right to note that the music at least avoids the sharply focused menace Low usually carry with them; what's here is too drifting and spacey to give Alan and Mimi's softly falsetto voices any real bite. I don't mean that as a complaint, mind you; the song is successful enough I kind of wish this outfit had recorded a full album, or at least an EP (like the Low/Spring Heel Jack one, which I am still eager to track down; if didn't offer it starting at $32 I'd have it by now...). The lyrics are a cipher, mostly just Alan and Mimi repeating "This life" with something that might be serenity, or foreboding, or regret. The rest happens near the beginning, and is rather hard to parse:

You want to sleep on the bottom
You want to look up and see them shout

You want to sleep on the bottom
You want your voice in this life to

But as Robert notes, there's definitely something characteristic of Low's typical uneasiness here, from the title phrase on down (which evokes for me at least the notion of "sleeping with the fishes"). Those concerns are made weightless, however, by the interplay of gauzy guitars and the too-fast-for-dub bass line; in addition to the way Low attributes any unseemly/unsettling desires or concerns to an inchoate "you" (something, now that I think about, that they do a lot; the band definitely has more direct address than most), the seamless but unique backing of the three acts together has everything to do with making "Sleep at the Bottom" as great, and atypical, as it is.

Thursday, August 23, 2007

Postscript to "Anon"

"(Usually in these dreams of home you prefer the landscape to the right - broad night-lawns, towered over by ancient walnut trees, a hill, a wooden fence, hollow-eyed horses in a field, a cemetery... Your task, in these dreams, is often to cross - under the trees, through the shadows - before something happens. Often you go into the fallow field just below the graveyard, full of autumn brambles and rabbits, where the gypsies live. Sometimes you fly. But you can never rise above a certain height. You may feel yourself being slowed, coming inexorably to a halt: not the keen terror of falling, only an interdiction, from which there is no appeal... and as the landscape begins to dim out... you know... that...)"

Thomas Pynchon, Gravity's Rainbow

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Sorry about that

Uh, having kind of a crappy week. So much so I kind of forgot to update yesterday or today, and I need to go to work soon. Might be back tomorrow, definitely back Monday.

Monday, August 20, 2007

John Prine

After literally something like a couple of years where I managed to avoid sustaining the slightest cut or contusion, I recently put my hand down on a broken piece of plate in a moshpit. Just as I recover from that, a flying bed leg this morning drew blood from the vicinity of my left knee. My new bed is fabulous; the legs I bought from Ikea at the same time as mattress and box spring to hold it up higher (for my under the bed containers, basically) are not. Sadly when one failed this morning, slipping under and waking me up as the whole thing listed badly, I found out that the damn things are designed such that all four legs had impacted the head of the bolt holding them on into the wood of the legs. Cue about forty minutes of hammering and swearing on my part.

There are other reasons I'm in such a gloomy mood today (day off from work and everything), but it's the scrape that made me think of "John Prine." The title of the song is still mysterious to me, especially as someone who discovered and loved Great Days as a kid. When I first got Trust I was intrigued by the title, then horrified once I heard the song; had Prine died? (no) I have not even the slightest idea why they named this song after him, and given what I've found out about over the years about how musicians name songs it might well be for something like the particular chord sequence or other musical affect that's borrowed from Prine.

The song is in any case not what I imagined when I bought Trust on the heels of a growing fandom and a good review in the NME, which I used to read (and like British teenagers for decades, I swear it was better when I did). I loved it, but it was so dark, so forboding, so long... I still think of Trust as a vinyl double album. There are four songs longer than seven minutes spread throughout it (see tracklisting with times here, ignore crap review), each anchoring a 'side.'* "John Prine" closes out side three on the direst note possible, starting with a stomp like the bad-dream return of the horrifying "The Lamb" (more on that in a later entry, obviously) but this time instead of the stamp of the mob it's Mimi's drum. At 4:20 Alan's guitar starts stomping along instead of drawing wavery lines in the air, as Alan's solo vocals continue to be terrifyingly, toweringly grim. His delivery here, married with the lyrics, is despair and pain and staggering anger. Is it any wonder Trust is the album where I started worrying about him? That it's the reason the post-Great Destroyer breakdown seemed inevitable?

I verified the math
And double-checked the syntax
I tried to heal your body
But it just kept coming back
You never had a chance

I thought I was a poet
I had so much to say
But now I want to see the blood
I want to make them pay
Yeah, I can see the day

I made a place for children
They wanted all the answers
I gave them all my lectures
And now they're perfect dancers
'Cause I'm a perfect dancer

Sha la la la la...

I'm not saying those are the words of someone with mental illness, and indeed if you mean the dramatic media-friendly version of the term I don't think Alan is mentally ill. But the darkness there - maybe you need to hear it. Maybe you need to hear the self-excoriation in "But it just kept coming back" and "I had so much to say" and "Now they're all perfect dancers." The clenched teeth on "Now I want to see the blood" and "I made a place for children." The hate in his voice - not for himself and not for the person he's singing to/about, but for this disease, this... thing that reaches into your life and twists it until there's nothing left. Even a small injury is notable and terrible not so much for pain (although that can be true as well) but for the way your normal connection to your body is impaired. I couldn't grip things normally with my right hand for a few days after the cut. I'm left handed and it was a small cut, but I couldn't get away from it. I'm extremely lucky when it comes to health; I'm rarely sick or injured, but the minor ailments I do get give me a massive appreciation for how much it must distort your life to be truly sick or injured, and also a crawling fear of finding myself in such a state.

Alan, in "John Prine," doesn't have that option. He, or at least his narrator, is sunk waist deep in the horror, not even on his own account but for a loved one. But the song quickly spirals away from medical accounts (if I was better organized like the esteemable Inverarity you might see me pick out all the 'medical' Low songs and do a series, but as it is you're going to have to bear with me circling around the subject and returning to it periodically) into some other kind of nameless dread. The last two plus minutes of the song are taken up with Alan and now Mimi (and Zak) singing a point/counterpoint of "sha la la la la"s, Alan's distorted and guitar-echoed falsetto playing off against the more normal voices of his bandmates. After the preceeding five and a half minutes of death march, it's one of the creepiest things I've ever heard on a record.

And yet.... at worst Trust ties with Drums and Guns as my favourite Low album, and before the latter come out this year it had a clear lead as my favourite. Songs like "John Prine" are not the only reason ("In the Drugs," for example, is as sublime as anything else they've done, "Over the Ocean" and "Will the Night" included), but they do make up a significant chunk. It's as much an album track as anything else I've ever heard, and it along with the other long tracks on Trust make up the dark matter that swirls, invisible, behind the rest of the universe. I shiver a little each time I hear it, but the band has such total tonal and sonic control at this point, and such a fiercely uncompromising viewpoint, that I wouldn't want it any other way. The album is the dark star of Low's discography, and if they're never quite this harrowing again it's probably for the best, as far as their own health is concerned.

*(Music geek note: My sides would be divided as follows: 1-3, 4-6, 7-9, 10-13. I have no idea if a vinyl version exists, or how it would be structured if it did.)

Thursday, August 16, 2007


"July" is a surprising song. So much so, in fact, that one of the ways it's surprising I didn't realise until I went to rip it in service of writing this post.

So let's start there. "July" is 5:35, although if you'd asked me before I looked at it tonight I'd have said it was under four minutes at the very most. And for such a long song (by this album's standards, at least) with the standard Low approach of two verses and two choruses, it's even more bizarre that the first chorus is over by the 1:15 mark. It's also odd for a Low song (although I didn't realise this at the time, TWLitF being my first Low album) for its relative fast pace and its nonconfrontational nature.

I'm not sure what Alan and Mimi are singing about; "They'll never wake us in time / Maybe we'll wait for July," sure, but for what? The verses are not just cryptic but contradictory, one expressing some sort of misgiving about missing "the date" but the second saying "at last" to the idea of the "them" in the song being "gone, I guess / With the rest, the rest." Much of this misgiving, however, is neatly curtailed by Mark D'Gli Antoni (of Soul Coughing) and his deft, one take use of the chamberlain, including the bits that sound kind of like a very delicate xylophone. Whatever else I think this record may be slightly lacking - the customary blood and thunder (and wonder and terror) that form the heart of my favourite Low albums, the way here their normal use of weird menace has mostly subsided into suggestive but cryptic lines that can be easily shrugged off - I can't deny that on a sonic level Things We Lost in the Fire is easily the prettiest Low album, and the playing on "July" could make up for a multitude of sins.

But it doesn't have to; the band saw fit instead to grace "July" with one of their more complex to date arrangements, which includes the song's shift at the three-minute mark. Maybe they'll wait until July, "or August, September, October..." and so on, as the singers trail off, drum and bass keep the pulse steady before Alan and Mimi engage in a winsome but surprisingly low key set of "la la la la la"s to lead us out of the track. It is one of the most striking sections in any Low song, and it brings both track and listener to a near halt with its sheer beauty. This is the way I was thinking of "July" as surprising; it's one of those songs on an album that I never think of as highlights only to be modestly floored every time I hear it. The hollow rumble of Mimi's drums under the surprisingly strong chorus (the only time on the song Alan's guitar is really heard, rumbling quietly) provide an earlier highlight, but what could just be a solid album track is elevated by the closing section into something that makes a fitting closer for Side One (although on the actual vinyl there are bonus tracks, so maybe it gets pushed back, I don't know).

It's worth noting that although it is of course played all over the album, TWLitF is definitely the Low record that is the least about Alan's guitar; never does it creep down listeners backbones or crack open the sky, never does he throw off the kind of supremely unsettling sparks that have gone a long way towards making Mr. Sparhawk one of the more interesting guitarists currently extant (and my love of Solo Guitar only shows how good he is at it). D'Gli Antoni's chamberlain doesn't quite take center stage away from the instrument, but it certainly fills enough of the sonic space that I didn't think about the lack of guitar until now.

Although my favourite part of "July" might be the brief uprising staged by the bass in the last ten seconds of the track, a part that sounds like it could launch right back into the chorus if they'd wanted to make "July" a bit of an epic. Maybe then I'd have a clearer memory of this admittedly lovely song when I haven't just listened to it, although to be fair to the album it's from Things We Lost in the Fire is one of those where I can never recall how much I like it until I take the plunge again.

Tuesday, August 14, 2007


Everybody wants to go home
Even when they're old
Even when they're small
Everybody wants to go home
Even when they're old
Even when they're small

The sound that starts "Home," a kind of cycling buzzing hum, always makes me think of plugging and unplugging a guitar into an amp. It takes the place of drums and bass, with only Alan's barely-there guitar and tremulous voice hovering over it. I always picture him making this one alone in the studio, barely picking the strings of a capoed guitar with one hand, and inserting and removing the plug for another instrument with the other.

I get the impression Low have always recorded in fairly friendly places, whether an old church or Steve Albini's studio or their own basement, but "Home" feels like a missive from the guts of some massive major label complex late at night, Mimi and Zak both dozing on couches, Alan missing his kids and his friends and his home and wanting to be anywhere less sterile. Of all the brief snippets of songs that Low scattered around their earlier albums - "Streetlight," "Stay," "Dark," even "Sea" - "Home" feels the most complete. Maybe because, like "Dark," it comes in at the end of the album, providing a brief postscript. But instead of providing a coda to the hypnotic "Do You Know How to Waltz?" "Home" slowly rears its head after the brief and ravishingly romantic "Will the Night," undercutting that song's swooning with a bit of desolation. It feels more self-contained, and after all the reviews that told me that Secret Name was nothing but pretty melodies and sweet voices "Home" was maybe the single biggest indication that there was something darker and deeper and more significant in this music.

Alan's slightly quavering voice ("perhaps a little homage to the swans," he says) and his choice of lyrics make this track an anti-lullabye. It always feels to me like it's being sung to someone 'small,' and that makes "Home" reassuring in a perverse way. Everyone wants to go home, even when you're old. Something about those word choices make me feel like "Home" could be a song from an old, dark fairy tale, and that plug noise (or whatever it is) turns into something more ominous: the rumble of storm clouds, or animals out in the woods, or just the sounds of the dark city. But in here it's okay. Although it sounds like it's being sung from far away, "Home" also makes me feel I'm the one actually at home, like I'm blessed in that way the narrator isn't. I love traveling, but I'm also one of those people who enjoys the return most of all and more often than not it's that rumble and quaver I'm humming to myself as I haul my luggage in the door.

I see looking this entry over that I've used some variant of "this songs makes me feel like" or "I aways imagine that" more often than most of Low's songs. Something about the late night stasis, Grimm Brothers feel and that plug noise just makes "Home" very evocative for me, and I can't help conjuring up associations every time I hear it. On another day you'd probably get a distinct but thematically related set. Up until "Walk Into the Sea" it's probably my favourite closer from a Low album.

Monday, August 13, 2007


[Blog update: A number of newer oeuvreblogs have sprouted up, devoted to T-Pain and Pavement, Marillion and Wilco (and how could I forget Elton John?). They are all linked at the side, and I wish their authors every success, these things are a bit of a commitment. Several of them are already favourites of mine.]

All Alan ever said about "Anon" (pardon the alliteration) is this: "from a dream i had one night." I don't remember most of my dreams - as far as my conscious self is concerned I might not even have them the vast majority of nights - but when I do there's a nightmarishly surreal cast to even the most pleasant of them that made me doubt Nietzsche's assertion in The Birth of Tragedy (one of my favourite books of all time, at least for the first 14 sections before it goes off the rails) that dreams belong to the Apollonian rather than Dionysian realm. In my dreams knowledge pops unbidden into your head; you know a is connected to or caused or will prevent b, know that person x loves/hates/is afraid of you, blithely know the identities of people and places you've never seen, and often in a moment of Dickian terror realise that these certainties are backwards; not because you were wrong to believe them but because they've been replaced by different certainties now (that man is an alien, she doesn't love you after all, you actually did win the lottery, and etc). Knowledge is no longer contained in your head, or even out there in the world, but lingers like a fog over everything; you might suddenly know for sure (and be right, inexorably, which is a real part of the terror) what the person next to you intends, or "what these cryptic signals mean" (cf.). There is no escaping this knowledge, no way to ignore or forestall or avoid it. It is as everpresent as vision to the waking man, only you cannot close your eyes or even go blind.

That the events themselves are happy or sad, wish fulfillment or worst fear, often seems secondary to the horrifying malleability of dream reality, which says more about my psyche than the nature of dreams I'm sure. The dreams I remember are the ones where I find myself caught in situations my dream self accepts implicitly even as I, inside, am screaming that it's not so, or at least that I have no way of knowing. It's the ontological equivalent of my repulsion from Cronenbergian 'body horror,' of the shifting flesh of the shapechanger. I love the films of David Lynch precisely for the cathartic effect of seeing that dreamlike certainty, and seeing it upset terribly; but watching it on the screen is wholly different from living through it. In the dreams I remember I know too much, with too much certainty, to have free will even as reality remakes itself freely; my knowledge always keeps pace with the dream world, and I remain trapped. Nothing is certain and everything is certain. Everything is true and nothing is permitted.

I have no idea what Alan's dreams are like. Aside from this:

Clean bill of health
Five years at the bell
No one will admit
The time or the places they've been


Three scales of men
Trace back to begin
No one will admit
Ignoring the age of my skin


I will admit, that second verse gives me chills. "Trace back to begin" by itself seems terribly suggestive of Low's method for this time (and "Anon"'s slow chime, the sound of what for any other power trio would be a brief, halting intro played out again and again with a hypnotic, not quite right certainty, is pretty emblematic of their sound then), but the gulfs of possible, hidden knowledge beneath "No one will admit / Ignoring the age of my skin" points towards so much of the Weird and Fantastic that I love because of a deep connection with terrors and fascinations that have lurked since childhood. It's the kind of statement you could find in The Prisoner, The Invisibles, Lovecraft, Sapphire & Steel, Illuminatus!, Dick, Quatermass or old (good) Doctor Who, Joy Division even, or if we expand stylistically a bit also in Borges, Calvino, Pynchon, those vast barely glimpsed secret networks that we fear have more agency, more reality than we do, the great central insight/terror posited most succinctly by Pynchon in the form of "nothing was coming. Nothing was already here." The horror that our most paranoid selves might be naively in the dark, which leaves our day-to-day selves where exactly? Outside of reality as it truly exists.

When I first heard this song I assumed that 'anon' referred to some sort of shorthand for 'anonymous,' that it was pointing to some sort of disavowal of authorship or some sort of lurking facelessness in the dream. Then I remembered that 'anon' is an archaic way to say three things:

1. At another time; later.
2. In a short time; soon.
3. At once; forthwith.

Later, soon, now. Nothing is coming. Nothing is already here. Clean bill of health notwithstanding.

...and that's why I'm fine with forgetting most of my dreams.