Wednesday, April 24, 2013

"There's been an accident."

AUTHOR'S NOTE: I've never written about music like this before, but I wanted to try. This is my all-time favorite song, so I figured it'd be fitting to start with it. Hope you get something out of this.

Appreciate you reading.

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Listen:



Ignore the little nightingale flourishes at the beginning and wait for that piano. The synth in the background hover on that big ol' G, letting the ivories dance around it like a maypole. Arpeggiated major triad jumps stands boldly in front, standing strong in the low-key cacophony of bells and whistles, but then becomes its own darker self the second time, with that D going to an Eb and making the whole chord into a flinch. The back-and-forth continues the whole time, with the bass meandering between the low and the high, see-sawing between the first note we hear and one of the last we'd expect to. You hear it in the bass, lumbering frost giant-like across the lower register, something impending. Will this be an act of creation, or an act of destruction? Is this a sunrise or a mushroom cloud?

Ain't no light summer rainshower: we're bracing for a hailstorm.

This is a song that you can listen to with headphones and still feel it in your chest. Those snare rim clicks come in like dark clouds—close your eyes and see drummer Bobby Macintyre, tapping the side of the drum, biting his tongue until he can unleash the doubles and triples just past the horizon and fast approaching. You stare into the setting sun of the ooohs, the ahhhs, the string section that drips across the rhythm like it was coming down a rain gutter.

That's when Greg Dulli starts to sing.

"Daylight is creeping,
I feel it burn my face
I don't sleep here no more
so my shadow walks in place of me."

So we're off by twelve hours: it's not bright turning dark, it's dark turning bright. This push and pull is the running theme of everything Dulli's done. Things start night-black, anything good concealed within a block of ice, but when morning comes—as it always will—the ice melts away, water dripping like tears down cheeks to reveal what was there the whole time, what we hoped was there, what we knew was there, within arms' reach and holding out for us.

The ooohs and ahhhs don't stop, and they shouldn't. This is a Greek chorus. No matter what Dulli's protagonist believes or sings—which aren't necessarily the same, since his narrators are about as reliable as a Ford Escort—he's not alone, and the voices will follow him through his whole journey.

"Like candy,
your eyes sweetly
roll out of control."

Ah. There's the "your." There's where she comes in.

"Like the singer,
alive,
but just barely holding on."

So he's barely holding on.

And then he lets go.

That final dissonant note at the top of the triad may rise a half-step, but everything else—the groove, the stable pulse, the very ground beneath their feet—crumbles. And when he gets to "far away/where you run/when it all became undone," we don't recognize the distance between them: we see the earthquake throwing their footholds up and down, refusing to sit still.

But that groove, that groove. It's dissipated, dissolved, a sugar cube in gasoline, and the song throws its hands in the air and loses its cool. The beats come hard now, punctuated punches with dust explosions like two chalkboard erasers crashing into each other again and again, just off standard rhythm, buhhh, buhhh, buh BUHHHH BUHHHH, buh BUHHHH, [repeat]. Left hooks and right crosses are let loose and you didn't have your gloves up and they catch you and cut your tissue paper eyes and bruise your bubble wrap cheeks and crush your cauliflower ears.

And here are the consequences:

"You'll be dust,
and realize
that you were taken for a ride

but still you call that number
until you're crawling under
them stones,
assorted jones,
and all alone."

The waves come crashing, relentless, and just when it's time to give up, right when the air gives out, there's a reprieve.

"I'm alive:
it kinda took me by surprise."

He's not the only one. It takes us by surprise, too; after the uppercut onslaught of the percussion, when the rug's pulled out from us, there's a quiet. We're back to the original feel, complete with the residual comfort of rim clicks and the string section cocoon.

But we're torn from it:

"but every time I look away
there's no light,
there's no sentry at the gate."

Maybe the sentry—sentries?—is who's been ooohing and ahhhing, part of a phalanx of soft-spoken guards shooting violin lines across the like crossbow bolts and nicking with each draw.

And now he repeats himself. This is what he wants us to know. The vocal line goes higher this time; he's already dipped his hand in the water, and now it's time to strike at the clouds. He stretches out as high as he can, volume increasing with pitch, throwing a chain to our ears and dragging us uphill with him.

The voice begins to crack—"all became undone/you'll be dust, re-a-lize," etc.—as the cool facade follows suit.

But between the peaks and valleys we see what's really on his mind:

"but still you call that number
until you're crawling under,
until you're crawling under,
until you're crawling under
them stones,
assorted jones,
and picked-over bones."

Listen to that "call that number" and that first "you're crawling under." These aren't just accusations, they're pleadings. This person calling this number? The one who's dust and who's been taken for a ride? The repeated pattern—this is the second time we're hearing this, so who knows how many more times it's come before—is driving him to his literal breaking point, and his voice, the only thing of his we have, is shattering under the strain.

And notice the difference between the otherwise identical lines: "crawling under" is repeated twice. He's not just telling her she's going lower, like he did before—she's going lower, and lower, and lower still. And what's she descending beneath? It's not just the rocks on the path or the assembled addictions she's hosting—it's a corpse.

But he's finally out of breath. He'll never hit these highs again—the few remaining vocal lines aren't just repeats, but also don't even approach what's come before—but we knew that already, didn't we? No surprises left. Felix's bag of tricks is at last empty, turned over, and only dust mites—there's that dust again—come out, falling like feathers.

A semblance of composure is regained, though, and he tries to take us back to where we started:

"Daylight is creeping,
I feel it burn my face
I don't sleep here no more
So my shadow walks in place of me."

Listen, though: there's no energy. He's wiped out. Fight or flight, and he picked both, leaving only his shadow. But once that daylight arrives, the shadow's gone, too, and the whole thing will just disappear.

Which is what happens with the song, really; it just sort of...stops. It doesn't so much "stop" as it does "evaporate," the remnants leaving speakers and turning to waves, then dripping to clouds, forming into drops, falling into mud, and leaving its tracks in our footsteps.

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I don't know what this song is really about. I'm sure there's a real meaning behind it—there always is, and it's almost certainly a woman—but the ambiguity of this is what draws me in, I think. Why is his face burning? Where is it that he's not sleeping?

But it's the second "when you call that number" that makes the hairs on my neck stand up and scream for attention. He hits that note—good grief, that note—and there's enough power behind it to light up the Hoover Dam. Other singers dissipate at the top of their range, but Dulli just turns from sledgehammer to a scalpel, and it cuts deep. No one I've ever heard can match his vulnerability, and that's what always gets to me: every song is him stripping down, showing us his scars, and refusing to let us turn away.

I haven't been writing much lately—not just on this blog, but in general—and I think it's because I've only recently become terrified of vulnerability. The last six months have bred an awful lot of changes. I went from rural New Mexico/minimal human interaction/no relationships/a dog to urban Utah/consistent human interaction/a girlfriend/no dog literally overnight, and it's been HARD. Everything has been flip-turned upside-down and I might be holding steady, but man oh man, it hasn't been easy.

So whenever I need to remember that the only good writing, the only things worth reading, are naked and bare to the universe while insisting to take on all comers, I listen to this song and remember what that connection can be like—should be like—and I try to act accordingly.

This was long, and I appreciate you reading, so I want to share with you my secret for happiness:

Give until you don't have anything in you,
until you swear you're empty

but then look to your right
at who's decided your hand is worth holding,
give it three squeezes,
and thank the God who you hope exists
for what's fallen onto your couch and into your heart.

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Thank you for reading. Spay and neuter your pets.

3 comments:

Anonymous said...

I want to compliment you, congratulate you, and praise you on such a wonderful piece. This song is practically a part of my DNA by now. I don't even notice it anymore; it is far from one of my favorites of Dulli's, which is like saying it's not my favorite bourbon. But this is art/music criticism in its best, most useful sense - it has helped me appreciate something with new eyes/ears. Thank you.
BW

Anonymous said...

From what I understand most of the album was written and recorded during hurricane Katrina. Every time I listen to it that is the image it conjures for me. A struggle to survive such a terrible event and the emotions that would arise from such an experience.

Anonymous said...

I also would like to thank you, for reminding me how incredible this entire album and this song especially is - absolutely love Dulli and the emotion he evokes. Thank you