Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Over the Ocean

"Over the Ocean" was the first song I read about as Low's peak, in a long forgotten article or webpage, some precursor of mine declaiming to anyone who would read that the band had somehow fused pop perfection and their usual crystalline, glacial phrasing into something mindblowing.

In the period before Trust came out (in other words, in the period when Things We Lost in the Fire sent me scrambling back through their discography looking for more), The Curtain Hits the Cast was my favourite Low album, in no small part due to "Do You Know How to Waltz?"'s excessiveness (I was also listening to Lift Your Skinny Fists Like Antennas to Heaven and Come On Die Young a lot), but partly because of this song. That writer was and is right; despite the more pop moves they've made before and since (including the album-length gestures of relative inclusion that were Secret Name and Things We Lost in the Fire) there is nothing in Low's discography that is quite as comforting as "Over the Ocean."

I've had a raging headache all day for some unexplained reason, and this was the only Low song I wanted to hear. The first time I was on a plane over the, err, ocean I listened to this song seventeen times. I once wrote a rather poor, gushy, article about the song. What I love about the rest of the album is its almost sumptuous darkness, perfectly reflected by the dark curtain in the cover art, and "Over the Ocean" partakes of a bit of that, having been written by Alan on bass while waiting for Zak to join, sick enough that he could only hit a few notes (including that high "Iiiiiiii'm" at the beginning of the chorus). The non-chorus lines are brief but suggestive:

Over the hills, over the dell
Over the fireline
Over the sand, over the plan
Over the empire

And if I belong, then I'll be longer than expected
And if I'm wrong, the mighty and strong will be rejected

This is bookended, of course, by many repetitions of "I'm over the ocean." What does it mean? A few albums back they sang of the sea being a long, long way away from them (and both "Sea" and this song feature Alan and Mimi's not-quite-unison on the repeated lines, although only "Over the Ocean" makes it feel like a chorus), and now they're over it - there's definitely a feel of being above all worries, all stress, all problems. Despite the fact they usually moved at a more deliberate pace than most of their contemporaries this is one of the surprisingly few times they can actually make you feel like everything is moving in slow motion (as compared to, say, "Shame," where a humid, sultry night is evoked but no sort of wading-through-air feeling the way this song does). It's an effect that the gorgeous video presents as well, although the video also brings to mind glenn mcdonald's remarks on how terrifying Low can be live. I'm going to quote his most striking passage, possibly for the second time, just because I love it that much:

The scariest thing about seeing Low play is seeing them play, or, really, seeing them not play. The songs don't sound any different in concert, but where the silence between notes is passive, when you're just listening to it, when the players are standing right in front of you, deliberately not playing, waiting expressionlessly for it to become time for the next note, the suspension assumes an active identity of its own. Standing in the room with Low is a trial, and one in which you can learn some things about your attention span, your preconceptions about performance and public consumption of art, and your physical tolerance for stasis. You can try to simulate this environment, perhaps by standing up and closing your eyes while you listen, and if Low never visits your town I won't begrudge you your closest approach, but you're not testing the same thing. You need people, and the rustle of air conditioners, and somebody behind you coughing, and the creak of leather-jacket sleeves as the guy in front of you reverses his arm positions, and Alan, Mimi and Zak managing to make eye contact with nothing, not even the floor. You need to know that you paid to stand in this room, and that if the show goes on too long you'll miss the last train, and that, unbelievably, the three of them have done this every night for the last three weeks. You need to know that they have performed these songs, and lived through it, even though when you look in their faces you can't always tell how. You need to sense how wrong it would be to scream. Without these things around you, a recording of the sounds made at such an event is no more edifying or sensible than the audio tape of an avalanche, or a poisoning, or a dream in which the world finally stops its odious twirl.

"Over the Ocean" is the song that captures the best, for me, that sense that it would be wrong to intrude, to shout over top of it. I got a call from a friend while writing this entry, and at one point she asked me what was playing in the background. I turned up the volume a bit and held my phone near the speaker for the duration of two or three "I'm over the ocean"s. Now she'd like to borrow a Low CD. This is not coincidence. There's something protean about the song's appeal, at least lyrically, with the ocean standing in for anything you want - even the ocean. If they ever put out a best-of (and oh, how I finally, ruefully understand my father and others when they have claimed that some band or another isn't done justice by one of those!), "Over the Ocean" has to be on it. There are times I find its warm embrace almost trite, having listened to the albums so often that I'm more likely to fixate on a "Mom Says" or a "Pretty People" or a "Home," but when I'm away from the music "Over the Ocean" is the one I remember, more often than not.

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