Thursday, July 19, 2007

Pretty People

All soldiers, they're all gonna die

"Pretty People" might just be the most disturbing song in Low's oeuvre, certainly the most disturbing one I can think of from their studio albums (and so, as I mentioned in my review, it takes more than a little chutzpah to put it as the opener to probably their most high-profile effort to date). I'm not a particularly dark person, at least I don't think so, and as I've alluded to or mentioned a bit in recent posts on this blog one of the interesting and kind of worrying things about going through Low's work song by song is noticing just how negative the band's work often is, and seemingly more so as the years pass. Has it made me like them any less? No, but maybe that's another thing to worry about... the song is, first of all, sonically unpleasant. I love the sound now, but when it starts up with the thick buzzing cloud of locusts (again, the first sound on the record!) and then Alan begins keening the brief lyrics in his most strident and off-kilter tones, it is at the very least bracing. Eventually Mimi plays a basic drum beat, but most of the song is still just that almost sickly droning bzz and Alan sounding, more than ever before, like a man with a "The End Is Near" sign.

And all the little babies, they're all gonna die

One of my problems, I guess, is that going all the way back to Crowded House I (like a lot of people, I assume) have identified more or less with the singers I like. Certainly there are bands and records I love despite finding them semi-alien (The Holy Bible springs to mind), but even with something like the Mountain Goats' Tallahassee one of the things I adore is the way Darnielle makes me empathize with those people. And so it is with Alan. It's wrong to conflate him with the songs, but it does happen to some degree; it's wronger still to conflate me with what I get out of the songs, but still. Do I identify with him/them? Well, yes. What does that say about me, and what do these songs say about Alan? Neither answer is simple (in fact, I'm kind of leaning towards ineffability for the former at the very least), and neither is terribly apparent to me right now. But despite a tendency in Low's music that comes to a head in "Pretty People" that I normally don't like in people I can't in good conscience pretend I don't identify with it too. That would be going backwards; the right approach is to instead accept the stipulation that I do still identify with the Alan of this song and then see where it takes me, however hesitant I am to do that.

All the poets, and all the liars

If I hadn't known that Alan and Mimi were/are Mormons and you had asked me, I probably would have figured them for Puritans. Oh, we're already in trouble! Is there any good connotation to the word 'Puritan' in this day and age? Does anyone say something is puritanical in anything but the pejorative sense? Maybe I'm still just feeling the aftereffects from Stephenson's masterful Baroque Cycle, which I finished last night and in which the main (arguably) character is in fact a lapsed Puritan of a sort, but I don't mean it in the kind of caricatured way people tend to these days. Yes, at times Alan and Mimi seem... not so much judgmental as suspicious of pleasure, tranquility, complacency, the easy way, the obvious. The kind of people I'm thinking of are, above all else, stubborn, especially in their refusal to be reassured. One of the things that keeps their faith from being off-putting to me, someone who possesses at best a radical different sort of faith, is that this restless certainty that vigilance must be eternal is turned upon themselves as much as or even more so on everyone else. Listen to "Whore" or "Immune" or "Lust" or a number of other Low songs; are you so sure they're talking to you? Or are they, like Aurelius in his Meditations, seeking to remind and reinforce themselves?

And all you pretty people

What disturbs me the most, then, is the way Alan sings his lines. He has often, from Trust onwards (if not before, but I would mark "The Lamb" as the first time I noted it) sounded nigh on feverish, like a man sweating out his demons. Even The Great Destroyer had its moments of queasiness and it is a feeling that envelops Drums and Guns (to its aesthetic benefit, I should add). But as much as there has always been a kind of fierce glee in his direst pronouncements on self and others (another thing that, rightly or wrongly, makes me think Puritan), on "Pretty People" there is something almost unholy about the way he sings "All the little babies, they're all gonna die" (and tomorrow or Monday I just might do "Walk Into the Sea" to show the contrasting side). He's not quite happy, and he's not quite mocking, but he is too close to both for comfort. It reminds me of something that Slacktivist has noted repeatedly in his detailed and excellent takedowns of the Left Behind books, the way that the real glory for the books' authors seem to be not so much ascending to Heaven as reveling in the way everyone else goes to Hell. I don't think that's how Alan actually feels, naturally (or even necessarily that "Pretty People" is sung by someone we should identify as Alan with no deviation, although that certain seems a little more likely). In fact, the other thing the almost triumphant air of "Pretty People" brings to mind is Stoicism. We are all going to die, after all, and sometimes there is a mean kind of joy in ensuring that everyone else hasn't forgotten the fact.

You're all gonna die

But still, what does that say about me?


Inverarity said...

This track made me think of Scott Walker's The Drift. Rather, what I wanted it to sound like, pestilential and smoggy and oppressive rather than physically sickening and mentally imbalancing. I had been on the lookout for soundtracks to a book I'd been reading and obsessing over for a while, Rising Up and Rising Down. Drums and Guns fit that role extremely well. I'm usually suspicious of albums that completely grab me on the first listen, but this one hasn't let go since.

You can interpret Alan's voice on this track as smug, or even gleeful, but I don't think it is. His voice almost always uses the same tone on this album: a sort of quavery voice, the voice of a man who has been holding things in and can't do anything but blurt it out. Connotations aside, "shameless" is the word that best suits it. We're all gonna die, and it is something worth keeping in mind.

I will admit that the transition to "Belarus" is a little too abrupt. That might be by design, though.

Ian said...

I, too, was a little disappointed by The Drift (it's interesting, but it's no Tilt), and weirdly enough I recently grabbed the abridged one-volume Rising Up and Rising Down, so when I read it I'm sure Drums and Guns will spring to mind (and from what I know of Vollman's work, that's an almost painfully apt soundtrack choice).

I was going to say, actually, that while I do think there's a kind of satisfaction in the vocals of "Pretty People" (the way he almost croons that first "die," the way he sings the words "pretty people"), there's also almost a compulsion to it. "Shameless" is a good word for it.

I actually love the abruptness into the Susumu Yokota-isms of "Belarus," from this buzzing, unhealthy mess into those surreally smooth tones and Mimi's calm, unconcerned vocalising. I imagine it is by design, although it's certainly a weird design!

I'm glad you're liking Drums and Guns, though. It's my record of the year, and I can't imagine many of my colleagues at Stylus will agree with me.