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.


Inverarity said...

Very good explication of the song. That's close to how I heard it, but I didn't think of the pills as a metaphor for art. I like that.

I heard it more as a song about false epiphanies. It's a strange lyric. Dragonflies have many aspects. They're thought of as ethereal, effortless fliers. They're unparalleled predators.
They're often associated with Japanese (or generic Far Eastern) culture. They have compound eyes, ha ha.

It's that line that gets me, especially: "O dragonfly! Your thousand eyes: what do they see, the lines of history?" (It sounds almost orientalist, doesn't it?) It's the only tipoff that the song is a meditation on human nature. I don't like the line "Some things should never be," though - it feels out of place in the song.

But it's the arrangement of the song, I have to say, that makes it amazing. The RGC version and live Low version are evocative and emotional, but there's something missing. "Bitter, wasted beauty" is right. Dessicated, even. I'd bet in the history of the English language, the words "Maybe you're right" have never cut so deeply as here.

Drums and Guns is the most amazing-sounding record I've heard since Scott Walker's The Drift. It's a gloriously cutting, uncompromising production job that shames anything I've ever heard guys like Steve Albini do. If it gets 75% negative reviews, well, so be it - this is an essential record.

(That was an amazingly unperceptive review, though, even for this record.)

Ian said...

False epiphanies is a good way to put it, actually; we thought we knew, but "maybe you're right" and we never did.

Dave Fridmann has been a favourite of mine ever since Mogwai's Come On Die Young and the Delgados' The Great Eastern, and while I wasn't sure about the fit when The Great Destroyer came out I definitely agree with you now. That's why Drums and Guns has a lock on my record of the year, really - the best album by my favourite band is pretty hard to beat.

I gotta say, though, I don't like The Drift as much as Tilt. Still pretty good, though.

Oh, and Drums and Guns actually has a combined rating of 81% positive ("universal acclaim") on Metacritic. So that guy is kind of the thin end of the wedge.

Inverarity said...

The Drift isn't an album I like or listen to much. The songs do seem a little weak - or at least totally listener-hostile. But as far as the breadth and depth of its sonic pictures go, it's close to unparalleled.

Ian said...

Hell yes. The punching meat, the donkey, the Daffy Duck voice - they sound gimmicky, until you hear the record.