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.