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.)