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Time Capsule – 2001

Music has been very close to my heart since I took up violin and heard Weezer’s first record both at age 8.  And my listmaking obsession dates back just as far.  In this post (which may become a series if Greg wouldn’t mind sharing his 2001 ‘Time Capsule’), I’d like to reflect upon some of the music I loved according to a list from 2001, embarrassing admissions and all.

The Beta Band’s Hot Shots II, Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy’s Ease Down the Road, Andrew Bird’s The Swimming Hour, Björk’s Vespertine, Bob Dylan’s “Love and Theft”, Fugazi’s The Argument, Lift to Experience’s The Texas-Jerusalem Crossroads, Mogwai’s Rock Music, Pinback’s Blue Screen Life, Spiritualized’s Let It Come Down and Spoon’s Girls Can Tell are just some of the many great records released in 2001 that I was completely unaware of at the time.  I will say that I frankly disliked The Strokes, Modest Mouse and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs at the time and I still wouldn’t consider myself a fan.  Sorry.

Alien Ant Farm ANThology — Since I’m listing these in alphabetical order, I suppose it’s good that I can get the most pathetic pick out of the way immediately.  Fourteen was a fortunate age for me: I had outgrown Blink-182’s Enema of the State and Incubus’ Make Yourself, and had not yet given myself entirely over to ‘screamo’ (let alone ‘Christian screamo’).  But I was unable to escape a love for Alien Ant Farm.  This record made sense to me at age fourteen for the following reasons:

  • I loved the album’s packaging – great designs and Photoshopped images of the band members in various historical settings, like a historical ANThology!
  • The single ‘Movies‘ captivated my adolescent mind with its catchy chorus and entertaining music video: so many amazing film references (Ghostbusters, Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, The Karate Kid and Edward Scissorhands) and a cameo with Mr Myagi!
  • Singer Dryden Mitchell (whose name I always romantically associated with NASA’s Dryden Flight Research Center) had an INVERTED MOHAWK.  HOW COULD I RESIST AN INVERTED MOHAWK???
  • I was in love with guitarist Terry Corso’s custom Schecter 006 guitar.

Despite all of these excellent reasons, I do not listen to them now.

Converge Jane Doe — 2001 had its lows, but it also had its highs!  Converge’s Jane Doe represents one of the highest of the highs.  This record revolutionised music for me and remains one of my absolute favourite albums.

Perhaps I found Jane Doe so palatable as a result of conditioning via hardcore and metal bands I was already listening to such as Black Flag, Minor Threat, Black Sabbath, Iron Maiden and Slayer listener.  Along with being my gateway to Converge (who is among my Top 20 Bands), Jane Doe spurned my interest in many other great metal/metalcore acts such as Botch, Coalesce, Curl Up & Die, Unearth, Cave In and Daughters.  Do I listen to them now?  Yes.

The Hives Veni Vidi Vicious — ‘Hate to Say I Told You So’ was the first Hives song I ever heard.  It’s simplicity and raw energy enlivened my spirit.  Upon further inspection I discovered Veni Vidi Vicious, as well as The Hives’ previous record, Barely Legal.

The Hives were able to channel something primal about rock-and-roll while giving us something accessible and new, and they did it with exquisite pomp and style, complete with matching wardrobes and an excellent stage presence.  Their 2004 record Tyrannosaurus Hives demonstrated a great progression, and while 2007’s The Black and While Album proved less strong, it is still a highly enjoyable record.  Do I listen to them now?  Yes.

Jimmy Eat World Bleed American — ‘Bleed American’ was the first track I heard from this record, and after purchasing the record I found every track to be incredibly enjoyable (especially ‘Sweetness’ and it’s quiet/loud alternation).

After this record (and after seeing the band open for Weezer that year) I developed a great appreciation for their previous records: Jimmy Eat World (1994), Static Prevails (1996) and Clarity (1999).  But alas, by the time of their 2004 release, Futures, I had lost interest.  Do I listen to them now?  No.

Ozma Rock and Roll Part Three — On the coattails of Weezer I happened upon Ozma, a band named after L. Frank Baum’s Princess Ozma from his children’s fantasy novels.  Ozma captialised on Weezer’s pioneering geek-rock style and added some Casio, musical complexity and yet-more-wicked guitar licks (compare Rock and Roll with Weezer’s self-titled record from the same year [also known as The Green Album] and you’ll hear a striking difference).

They have since retained a special place in my heart due to their persistence as a pop-rock goldmine with the release of The Double Donkey Disc (2001/2002), Spending Time on the Borderline (2003) and (after a brief hiatus) Pasadena (2007).  Do I listen to them now?  Yes.

Radiohead Kid A/Amnesiac — For everyone who reached adolescence in the late 90s, ‘Karma Police’ from 1997’s OK Computer was the pinnacle of song, yet Kid A somehow managed to blow that all out of the water.  I remember when I first heard ‘Optimistic’ on the radio, which compelled me to buy the record.

I had no idea what I was in store for, considering ‘Optimistic’ would prove to be one of the weaker (though still incredible) tracks on the record.  Radiohead’s production had become more complex and experimental and Kid A would come to completely change the way I appreciate, experience and create music from thereon out.  This record is still a frequent listen and certainly one of my all-time favourites.

Saves the Day Stay What You Are — As with most other albums on this list, my purchase of Stay What You Are was inspired by the single ‘At Your Funeral’.

Saves the Day’s previous record, Through Being Cool, appealed to my emo and pop-punk tendencies, so it seemed like a good idea to investigate their new record.  Upon my first listen I wasn’t very pleased with half of the record, but over time it grew on me and became one of my high school favourites.  Their follow-up to Stay What You Are, In Reverie, proved to be more poppy less ambitious and I began to fall out of love with the band before their return to a more pop-punk sound.  Do I listen to them now?  Occasionally.

Thrice Identity Crisis — Unlike many other albums on this list (the only exceptions being the Converge and Ozma records), I did not learn about Identity Crisis from the radio.  In 2001 Thrice was still very much a local act, and fortunately for me, some of my friends had recently seen Thrice in concert.  I was told that they were ‘melodic hardcore’, and when I purchased this record I fell deeply in love with their music.

My love for Thrice was only intensified with the 2002 release of Illusion of Safety, which I considered a massive step forward for the band.  Unfortunately it was only a matter of time before Thrice would gain radio play, and in 2003 they released The Artist in the Ambulance and my heart was broken upon hearing the single ‘All That’s Left’ on a popular radio station.  Thrice had lost their edge and sounded like a dull rock band (though I want to take care not to lower them to the ranks of acts like Nickelback).  After Illusion of Safety I never bought another Thrice record and have had a difficult time ‘getting into’ their latest records.  While Identity Crisis was groundbreaking to me at the time (and along with Illusion of Safety has a few tracks that I still consider quite good), I no longer consider myself a fan and I do not recall the last time I was hankerin’ for a listen.

Thursday Full Collapse — Ah Full Collapse…thus began my high school interest in ‘screamo’.  What could be better than combining the genres of hardcore and emo?  Well, many things, and while I was an avid listener to ‘cultured’ bands like Radiohead, screamo occupied another place in my heart and mind.  Thursday was at the top of the screamo food chain, and there was certainly something special to me about hearing the screams from ‘Cross Out the Eyes’ playing on MTV in the morning before school.

My fascination with Thursday and screamo didn’t end at Full Collapse.  It wasn’t until some point between 2003’s War All the Time (which I loved) and 2006’s A City by the Light Divided (which I had no interest in) that the genre had totally dropped out of my listening queue.  Do I listen to them now?  No.

The White Stripes White Blood Cells — I recall hearing the track ‘Hello Operator’ from the White Stripes album De Stijl at some point in 2000, but it wasn’t until I heard ‘Fell in Love with a Girl’ that I felt this great compulsion to buy a White Stripes record.

White Blood Cells proved to be an excellent investment, with all of its garage-rock-revival sloppiness (and what Meg White lacked in percussive skill she made up for in keeping time).  Every record they produced (as they have officially announced their breakup this year) contained a bit of this genius, the sort of quality that can give us hope in the future of popular music.  Do I listen to them now?  Yes.

+++++

I stand by 60% of these albums now – I wonder whether that is a good or bad sign.

What were your favourite bands/albums in 2001?  How have they fared a decade later?

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The Only Book I Will Buy This Year…

I have made a commitment/resolution not to buy any non-required books in 2011, being that the number of volumes I bought in the last quarter of 2010 ought to provide me with enough reading material for this entire year (you may find my current reading list here) and I was finding that my ongoing Amazon book purchases were becoming a sort of addictive behavior (experiencing a little dopamine hit at the click of “Add to Cart”.)

However, I am going to break my vow for one book that is coming out in June of this year, entitled God Behaving Badly by David Lamb.  I took a course with David this past summer at Fuller Seminary on the book of Genesis that somewhat revolutionized my view of “the God of the Old Testament” and even my approach to Scripture as a whole.  David has a contagious passion to help people understand Scripture (from his days on staff with InterVarsity), but also open-mindedly engages critical issues and theological tensions in the Bible (from his time at a little school across the pond called Oxford University).

In the course I had with David, we were able to read some of the early chapters from this work and the content is outstanding.  You may check out the many endorsements at the IVP page on the book, including ones from Scot McKnight (who is making this required reading for undergrads), John Goldingay, and Alan Hirsch. I’ve included a brochure for the book below that has a pre-order code for 40% off which can be used from now until April 30, 2011.  If anyone wants to do a reading group on the book, I’m game!  Here’s to breaking my vow!!

Best Albums of 2010

The year is rapidly drawing to a close, which means that it is time for our favourite annual post here at LITC: OUR BEST OF ALBUMS LIST.  This has been a very satisfying year for music.  Not much is needed by way of introduction, so let’s just jump into it.  As may be expected, we (Elijah & Greg) have several albums in common among our top ten.  We will first share our overlap.

Shared entries from Elijah & Greg’s Top 10 Albums of ’10

  • InnerSpeaker Tame Impala (Greg) — This is a band where every ingredient (vocals, instruments, lyrics, production, etc.)  makes an essential and vital contribution to the final result–remove any element and the entire sound would collapse.  Everything I like about ‘classic rock’ (a hideous term that conjures up images of some white trash hessian screaming out ‘FREE BIRD!’) is to be found on this album, yet, to my ear, it in no way feels dated.  It’s often uncomplicated, but as if the band simply understood exactly what needed to go where to make each song perfectly what it eventually was meant to become (goodness there were a great many adverbs in that sentence!).
  • High Violet The National (Elijah) — The National caught me by surprise this year.  I was not as big a fan of 2007′s Boxer, unlike Greg and many of my other highly revered friends.  But from the first note of the first track, ‘Terrible Love’, I was entranced.  This album is incredible on the first listen, but is also a ‘grower’, with its share of immediately outstanding tracks and tracks that reveal their ultimate reward after a series of faithful listens.  There’s something pure and straightforward about High Violet that seldom makes its way into indie playlists these days.  Also, listen for Sufjan Stevens’ contribution on the excellent track ‘Afraid Of Everyone’.
  • The Suburbs Arcade Fire (Greg) — I admired their first album immensely; their second was a mixed bag.  I assumed that this would be continuing in that downward trajectory.  I was wrong.  This is a masterpiece.  I originally felt like there was something derivative about the genres of various songs (Byrds here, ABBA there), but ultimately, I took this to be part of their apocalyptic vision of a decaying world of garden cities where ‘the music divides us into tribes’.  Win Butler is one of the best living songwriters…
  • The Winter of Mixed Drinks Frightened Rabbit (Greg) — My expectations were unreasonably high for this album (their last was my favorite album of 2008).  FRabbit surpassed them.  So much greatness to be found.  Aside from ‘Man / Bag of Sand’ (which was reminiscent of another filler-esque reprise, ‘Extrasupervery’ on their previous record), there is nary a miss to be found.  This kind of material is paving the way for a career that will end up with FR being among the great bands of all time.  (Elijah adds: FR’s principal songwriter Scott Hutchison wrote this record over the course of two weeks in Crail, Fife, near my home in St Andrews, so the tone of the whole record gives me a warm feeling of geographic familiarity.)
  • The Age of AdzAll Delighted People EP Sufjan Stevens (Elijah) — Our Sufjan thirst twas quenched this year and our cup runneth over.  Not only did the contemporary musical genius release a surprise EP, but also a mind-blowing full length — a grand total of two hours, fourteen minutes, and eighteen seconds of new and very worthwhile Sufjan material (though among other Adz tracks, a version of ‘The Owl And The Tanager’ from ADP was publicly performed in 2007).  Several months ago, Greg wrote a great piece analysing The Age of Adz.  This album is strikingly personal and apocalyptic, and musically Sufjan is pushing the boundaries of pop, perhaps alienating those who are looking for the ‘older stuff’ (or more correctly, the ‘mid-career stuff’, namely IllinoiseA Sun Came is very much the progenitor of The Age of Adz).  Sufjan has written his best record to date (and Adz‘ ‘I Want to Be Well’ might be my favourite Sufjan song of all time), which has brought about several modifications to our preexistent lists: The Age of Adz has been added to my Top 50 Albums list (displacing Black Flag’s hardcore punk gem, Damaged for the time being) and as an artist, Sufjan has surpassed The Smiths, Radiohead and Belle & Sebastian in my Top 20 Bands list.  (Greg adds: This album is a museum worthy work of art. [Elijah adds: Here, here!])

Elijah’s Top 10 Albums of ’10

10.   Belle and Sebastian Write About Love Belle & Sebastian — If the listener is looking exclusively for a return to form, an album resembling Tigermilk, If You’re Feeling Sinister or The Boy With the Arab Strap, he or she will be let down by Write About Love.  It is evident that B&S have grown up a bit over the last 1.5 decades and don’t want to keep writing the same albums, something which we cannot blame them for, can we?  But this record doesn’t need to be exhaustively defended – it stands well on its own.  Its slightly less poppy than their previous release, 2006’s The Life Pursuit, finding a medium between 2000’s Fold Your Hands Child, You Walk Like A Peasant and The Life Pursuit, as if in the place of 2003’s Dear Catastrophe Waitress (which is also an incredible record).  Ultimately, Write About Love is a success if we are willing to see something that isn’t pre-2000 B&S as such.  It is an excellent record that certainly improves with every listen.

9.   King of the Beach Wavves — For those who have not previously seen this album cover, yes, that is a cat wearing a marijuana leaf-laden hat smoking a joint.  But at least he has an all-seeing eye necklace, right?  Maybe it will come as no surprise that Nathan Williams, leader and creative force behind Wavves, had a serious drug/alcohol-induced freakout during a concert in Spain last year, causing the other two members of the band to quit.  Fortunately for Williams (and for us as listeners), the late Jay Reatard’s backing band (Billy Hayes and Stephen Pope) decided to join Nathan’s group and Wavves was reincarnated to give us the incredibly catchy (I mean, REALLY CATCHY), garage rocky, King of the Beach.  Billy has since left the band.

8.   Teen Dream Beach House — This record is one of a number of surprises for me this year.  Prior to this record I did not find Beach House especially engaging, which delayed my purchase of Teen Dream until Greg included the new version ‘Used to Be’ (the old version was released as a single in 2008 following Devotion) on a mix he made for me.  This is an incredibly original record, superior to Beach House’s previous releases, which are rendered mediocre in light of Teen Dream.  Singer Victoria Legrand’s vocals power this record into the realm of the serene and sublime.  While some tracks are stronger than others (like ‘Zebra’, ‘Norway’, ‘Used to Be’, and ’10 Mile Stereo’), this is an amazing record as a whole.

7.   This is Happening LCD Soundsystem — Much like the case of Beach House with Teen Dream, I never found LCD Soundsystem’s music to capture my interest before this record.  James Murphy has been at it for ages, and while 2007’s Sound of Silver was a critical and commercial success for his LCD Soundsystem, This is Happening demonstrates a finesse that secures his place as a veteran.  This record is both very raw (‘Drunk Girls’) and sophisticated (‘Somebody’s Calling Me’), which combine to give us a incredibly interesting, fun, catchy, and pretensionless album.  I also hear a lot of tasteful 1974-77 Eno-esque sound on this record (like ‘All I Want’ and ‘Somebody’s Calling Me’), which pleases me to no end.

6.   The Suburbs Arcade Fire

5.   InnerSpeaker Tame Impala

4.   High Violet The National

3.   The Winter of Mixed Drinks Frightened Rabbit

2.   Halcyon Digest Deerhunter — Back in September I wrote concerning this record, ‘The album as a whole is excellent and it will surely find a place near the top of my favourite records released this year.’  I’m not merely placing Halcyon Digest at number two to save face so that no one can condemn me with, ‘Elijah gives disingenuous praise.’  No, every single track is an amazing audio experience, and as a whole they function as a battering ram made up of all that is good in independent music, breaking down the doors of pretension by merely doing what they love – and doing it well.  Deerhunter makes their last two records (2008’s Microcastle and 2007’s Cryptograms) while brilliant in their own right, sound like mere warm-up sessions for Halcyon Digest.  Bradford Cox—whose solo record as Atlas Sound, Logos, was my ninth-favourite record last year—and Lockett Pundt deliver with their unique sense of melody and lyrical strength (even in Bradford’s stream-of-consciousness manner).

1.   The Age of Adz & All Delighted People EP Sufjan Stevens

Elijah’s Honourable mentions

+++++

Greg’s Top 10 Albums of ’10

10.   Contra Vampire Weekend — I’ll be honest…I didn’t want for this album to make my list.  Vampire Weekend has such a hipster aura that I tend to avert my eyes.  In fact, their first single, ‘Horchata’, with its contrived, graceless rhymes (balaclava, Aranciata, Masada) and reek of Paul Simon’s Anglo-appropriation of world music nearly drove me away from the album.  But the melodies…ahh, the melodies are sublime, and the singer (Ezra something?) has a delivery of lilts and arcs that makes me love his intention despite the ostentation of his diction, and, really, they pull off the ethno-musical robbery just as ‘Al’ did so many years before (he said I could call him that).  Recommended tracks:  ‘Run’, ‘Giving Up the Gun’, ‘I Think Ur a Contra’.

9.   Fang Island Fang Island — This is a last minute addition (sadly bumping off Josh Ritter’s album, which has some tremendously lovely cuts).  But this album is so DELICIOUSLY HOOKY and DELIRIOUSLY FUN that I had to include it.  Like a synthesis of early Muse & Weezer playing the old Disneyland Electric Light Parade possessed by the spirit of Brian Wilson.  If you don’t enjoy it, I would recommend a good proctologist.

8.   Heartland Owen Pallett — This guy was a discovery made driving along a dark road one night listening to KCRW.  I used Shazam to figure out who he was, then weeks later remembered to check him out/download the album (at some point, I will need to own a physical copy of this album for the brilliant cover art).  I was a bit put off by some of the dissonance on this album at first…but I could immediately sense a lyrical/melodic/arranging genius at work, so I listened to it many more times.  It’s one of the most stylistically original and creative albums I’ve come across in years & there’s something about his voice and words that reveals a profoundly singular craftsman, in the manner of Sufjan and Andrew Bird.  Recommended tracks:  ‘Keep the Dog Quiet’, ‘E Is For Estranged’, ‘What Do You Think Will Happen’.

7.   InnerSpeaker Tame Impala

6.   Forget Twin Shadow — If you like the Smiths & have any nostalgia for 80’s pop music songcraft, combined with a generally melancholic outlook on life, you will love this album.  If not, you will hate it.  It’s so distinctive, it is sure to have a polarizing effect–it almost has some sort of mystical power over me.  I don’t know what he’s talking about half of the time, but it feels like he is singing my deepest emotions.  Recommended tracks:  I happen to think that ‘Tyrant Destroyed’ and ‘Castles in the Snow’ are two of the best songs I’ve heard all year.

5.   Together The New Pornographers — I’ve followed the NP’s for a while, often finding inspired songwriting/performing genius mixed in with merely human tune smith ‘capability’; however on this album, the genius overshadows the capability by 11 to 1.  There are a number of songwriters in the band–one of whose style I have little accord with  (see ‘Daughters of Sorrow’), but the rest of the songs have enough buoyant loveliness to keep the Titanic afloat.  Recommended tracks:  ALL, except the above track and ‘If You Can’t See My Mirrors’.

4. High Violet The National

3.   The Suburbs Arcade Fire

2.   The Winter of Mixed Drinks Frightened Rabbit

1.   The Age of Adz & All Delighted People EP Sufjan Stevens

Greg’s Honourable Mentions

Welcome to November

Every once in a while it is suitable to give a brief update on the inner-workings of the blog and its contributors.  November is upon us and autumn is in full swing.  While I failed to publish a single post in the month of October, Greg more than made up for it with several excellent posts (including an amazing playlist of music from 2010 thus far and a very interesting and insightful look at Sufjan Stevens’ excellent new record, Age of Adz – thank you Greg for picking up my slack!).  But if you’re really thirsty for more discussion on the ‘Hipster Christianity’ theme that Greg has featured in two posts in September (‘“Hipster” “Christianity”: a “review”‘ and ‘Mocking Hipster Faith‘), I have done a book review of Brett McCracken’s book Hipster Christianity for the blog Transpostions which can be viewed here.

Some exciting news from the blog can be found in the address bar of your internet browser: ‘lostinthecloudblog.com‘!  Because we so love this conversation with our readers on LITC, we’ve decided to take this up a notch and acquire an official domain name.  So update your bookmark menu and the links to our blog that you constantly pass around to your friends (who are we kidding – we know none of you do this…).

As Greg has hinted, we are rapidly approaching the end of 2010, which means one thing here on LITC: MORE LISTS.  Concerning music specifically, this has been an excellent year to be an active collector and listener.  I can promise that at the end of this year I will be making several significant modifications to my Top 20 Bands and Top 50 Albums lists.  As we share our favourites with you, we’d love to hear your favourites (please enlighten us).

Thank you to all who regularly visit and contribute to our blog.  It is likely that in our lameness Greg and I would keep doing this blog even if he and I were the only two people who ever looked at it, but all of you really help us to bring these issues—however serious or silly—into a broader conversation, giving us insights and perspectives that we might not have otherwise encountered.  And we love it.

A Portrait of the Artist in The Age of Adz

Sufjan Steven’s new album, The Age of Adz, officially comes out on Oct. 12.  For those of us anxious souls who pre-ordered the CD (myself) or vinyl (Elijah), a link to download MP3’s of the tracks was available this past Tuesday.  So I have listened to the album all the way through a few times and I wanted to post my initial reaction.

First of all, I experienced quite a bit of relief in listening to the album, because I was scared that I might not like it—that it would be too experimental (a la Enjoy Your Rabbit) to satiate my Sufyearning, or that it would somehow mark a decline in his songwriting career (the kind of artistic downturn pointed out in Trainspotting).

Indeed, it is neither of these things—the truth is, rather, that I absolutely love this album.  It is different than his last few LP’s, so beware of your expectations, and it takes us into a new aural and thematic territory, so you will need to submit to the album as a guide rather than following your own map of where you think the work should go (if you’ve listened to his cover of “You Are the Blood,” you’ll know what to expect).  Having said that, I want to share some interpretations of The Age of Adz which may or may not be completely legitimate, but rather represent my impulsive first responses to the work.

I haven’t read any reviews yet, but I saw in some pre-release material from Asthmatic Kitty that this album was not “built around any conceptual underpinning (no odes to states, astrology, or urban expressways).”  However, I don’t believe that.  I think that The Age of Adz actually is a concept album, but the “theme” of the album is quite simple:  it is a self-portrait.  This is no stunning insight, considering song titles like “I Walked,” “Now That I’m Older,” “All For Myself,” “I Want to Be Well,” as well as his self-address in “Vesuvius” (sounding like “Sufi-yan”) and his many references to himself on the album (even apologizing for being so self-critical)  I believe that this album is deeply autobiographical, taking the listener all the way from an external experience of Sufjan’s that causes him to go deeper and deeper into himself, on a tour through his emotions, thoughts, religious impulses, raw desires (“id”), and finally into his “Impossible Soul.”

Somehow, I believe, the figure on the cover of the album represents Sufjan’s self-conception.  All I know about this painting is that it is the work of an “outsider artist.”  Does this reveal something about the way Sufjan sees himself?  An outsider? To what?  The painting is primitive, even child-like, somewhat dark and cultic, but also looking like a kind of  superhero–in a word, conflicted.  There is a possible pun in the name:  “Adz” sounds like “odds”—is he at an age where he is at odds with something (clearly there is some reference to his sense of growing older)?  “Outsider,” “at odds”—these seem to hint at some deep inner tension and alienation…but from what?

The realization of this autobiographical form caused me to reflect on the fact that most of his previous songs from the past decade had been in the form of storytelling (where he used first person description not to tell his OWN story, but rather to take on a fictional persona) or worked within a structural framework of a central external concept.  This is not to say there were no autobiographical songs, which one may have found on A Sun Came or Seven Swans.  However, the majority of his songs were distanced from his own self-expression through portraying a fictional persona, illustrating a Biblical scene, or depicting some historical narrative.  Here we find Sufjan singing straight from his own soul with no personas, no “characters.”  It is a cathartic and desperate work of self-expression.

The first song, “Futile Devices,” sets up some of the formal dimensions of the work.  It begins with instrumentation that might make you think this album would be quite in line with his previous albums (the guitar melody/picking reminded me of the song “A Sun Came” in particular…later in “Futile Devices.” he references that he “sounds dumb” which takes us again back to a track on his first album, “Dumb I Sound”).  He even begins by singing, “It’s been a long, long time…” perhaps alluding to the time span since his last lyrically-based LP.  The song introduces the central conflict of the album in his feelings for a person whom he loves very much, but to whom he cannot express his passion.  In fact, he ends the song by saying “words are futile devices.”  Though this will be a lyrical album, the listener must look past the words to a deeper, more ineffable expression of feeling that runs beneath than the words—I believe the intricate instrumentation and emotional passion (the cracking and stretching of his voice) evident in this album are supposed to convey what words cannot.  This first song helps transition us from his “indie-folk” albums into this more experimental, electronic sound, which we find in the primordial bubbling and scratches of the first 25 seconds of “Too Much,” which felt like a sonic version of the old Disneyland ride, “Adventure Thru Inner Space,” shrinking us to fit into the writer’s inner world.

What compelling force draws me into this mysterious darkness--can this be the threshold of inner space?

Rather than analyzing song by song, I’ll just say that I perceived a great deal of internal conflict evident in the album in terms of Sufjan’s inability to express his love for someone and the deeper and more comprehensive self-analysis this feeling produces, leading to the exploration of his own emotional and spiritual complexity.  I began to wonder why this was the case?  What is so difficult about expressing his feelings, or why is he such a conflicted person?  He says again and again in the second song, “There’s too much riding on that” in relation to the feeling of “too much love” (there is more repetition of lyrics on this album than he  typically uses—perhaps revealing a hope that somehow what he feels can be revealed through saying the same thing over and over, or is it an exasperation that he can’t say what he feels, even though he says it over and over?)  What is tormenting him?  What is he afraid of?

Various possible explanations ran through my mind to these questions.  I’ll share my intuitions, which sometimes don’t have much evidence, and am quite open to you debunking these theories (and my whole idea of the album as a self-portrait).  When I get the album and lyrics, I would love to spend some more time considering the meaning and significance of this amazing album with many of my thoughtful friends…

So what are my theories to the central conflict I see in The Age of Adz?  With what is he at “odds”?

  1. Does it have something to do with his adherence to Christianity?  Does he feel like an outsider due to his faith?  His religious commitment results in experiences like prohibition of certain activities, guilt, and the need to confess and receive forgiveness that perhaps other friends (and potential lovers?) cannot comprehend.  Perhaps he is finding himself at odds with his faith itself as it impacts his relationships?  His Christian morality also (potentially) results in his celibacy (which I saw evident in the juxtaposition of the lines “I’m not fucking around” and “And I want to be”) which could produce both internal and relational tension.  So then this would mean that his feelings are complex because of his unique status as a high-profile Christian in a post-Christian world.  Perhaps, but this doesn’t seem like the most compelling theory to me.
  2. Is it that he struggles with relational “attachment” (in line with the psychological notion of “attachment theory”) and so finds he cannot commit to someone even when he feels deeply attracted to them?  Many of his earlier songs seemed to reveal issues with parents/family, so perhaps there are some abandonment issues or lack of relational stability in his history?  This theory is more intuitive than it is substantiated by the lyrics…
  3. Is he in love with someone who is unavailable to him?  Perhaps someone who is married or uninterested in him (which I personally would find hard to believe…come on, I have a man crush on him!)?  Unrequited love can be powerfully debilitating, requiring evasions and disguises to remain around the romantic object, which cause considerable emotional torment and inability to outwardly express one’s thoughts and feelings.  There may be potential here.
  4. I hesitate to offer this last theory, because it feels quite personal, but I wonder if Sufjan might be gay?  This may sound sensational and I don’t mean to pry unnecessarily, but to understand this work, I have to be willing to consider this as a possibility, particularly since it would potentially be extremely difficult to experience these feelings as a Christian (consider Jennifer Knapp’s story).  The first song, where the issue of undeclared love arises, seems to be written about a man.  However, there is contrarily the conversation with a woman who seems to be the object of love in “Impossible Soul.”  After listening to Morrissey’s repressed homosexuality for so long, I may simply be projecting this idea on Sufjan.

So those are my theories on the album for your perusal, dismissal, or development.  I hope you enjoy exploring the depths of this masterful work as much as I have and will continue to do!  If you do not have the MP3’s, you should go out and buy this album as soon as it comes out (and don’t file-share it for goodness sake)!!!

UPDATE:  Listening another time around, with all of this in mind…my theories are on shaky ground.  One intriguing song, “Get Real Get Right” contains some cheesy electronic sounds and vocal effects worthy of a segment on “Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job!” and yet this is one of the more overtly “Christian” songs on the album with talk of seared consciences and getting right with the Lord.  Maybe this plays into theory #1?  There are some other kitschy moments on the album where a vocoder is used (similar to Imogen Heap’s “Hide and Seek” or Bon Iver’s “Woods”) along with some other robotic vocal effects (similar to a lot of 1980’s songs).  Is he just having fun, or is there something in this particular choice?

ANOTHER UPDATE:  There are no lyrics in the CD sleeve.  Which reinforces the idea that words are “futile devices.”  Now what the hell do all those paintings by the “Prophet Royal Robertson” mean in the context of this album!?

Helicopter Megaphone

The new Deerhunter album, Halcyon Digest, was released this week and I seized the opportunity to purchase it at Avalanche during a quick trip to Edinburgh on Monday.  The album as a whole is excellent and it will surely find a place near the top of my favourite records released this year.  The artwork is intriguing, with the fold-out insert designed in the fashion of an underground newspaper or zine.  All of the lyrics to the individual tracks are written on this insert with an additional bit before the eighth track, ‘Helicopter’.  Before the lyrics this short article appears, reprinted in the album artwork with permission from Dennis Cooper:

Dima (real name Dimitry Marakov) was born in 1986 in the town of Nalchik, Russia.  From a young age, he dreamed of working in the fashion industry as a designer.  Lacking the moral or financial support of his parents, he actively sought out contacts within the industry through the internet.   At the age of 14, he became acquainted with a successful fashion photographer in St. Petersburg who invited the boy to come live with him and work as his assistant.  Dima accepted the offer and moved in with the photographer.  According to friends of Dima, he became the older man’s lover for approximately the next year.  He eventually grew dissatisfied with the lack of benefits he had been promised would result from the arrangement.  He left the photographer to become live-in lovers with a wealthy man who provided the financial backing for a conglomerate of pornographic gay websites.  It was at this point that Dimitry adopted the stage name Dima and, with the help of false documents that corrected his age to the legal 18, began a successful career modeling naked and starring in hardcore sex videos on the gay websites financed by his lover.

Between the age of 15 and 18, Dima was a highly sought after pornographic model and performer.  He saved the money he made from modeling to pay for the tuition at a leading college of fashion that he hoped to attend when he reached 18.  At a certain point, Dima began supplementing his income by renting himself out as an escort within his lover’s circle of associates and acquaintances.  According to friends of Dima, they included several leading figures in the entertainment industry as well as one of the most powerful men in Russia’s world of organized crime.  Dima began to express concern to his friends that the organized crime figure had become obsessed with him, but he refused to accept their advice to stop seeing the man because of the large amount of money these dates were earning him.  Sometime in 2005, Dima abruptly left his lover, gave up his modeling career, cut off all communication with his friends, and moved in with the organized crime figure.  The last public Dima sighting was late that year when his friend Ignat Lebedev, who was also working as a male escort at the time, accompanied a client to a private sex club where he claims to have witnessed a very thin and confused looking Dima being forcibly sodomized by a group of perhaps ten to fifteen men.  Lebedev claims his client identified one of the men as the organized crime figure and dissuaded him from speaking to Dima for his own protection.

Lebedev claims he described what he’d seen to Dima’s former lover and was told Dima had been killed the previous week and that he shouldn’t speak of this again.  Lebedev reported both incidents to the police, but after interviewing the lover and being told Lebedev had made the story up, they declined to investigate the matter.  In 2006, Lebedev persuaded a prominent Russian gay journalist to write an article on Dima’s disappearance, but during the course of investigating the story, the writer was abducted by unknown assailants, beaten, and told he would be murdered if he wrote the story.  Dima has not been seen or reliably heard from in three years, although in early 2007 another organized crime figure, Evgeny Ershova, who was awaiting trial on an unrelated murder charge, claimed that in late 2005 he witnessed a young male prostitute matching Dima’s description be pushed out of a helicopter over a remote forest in the north of Russia.  Before Dima’s ex-lover died of lung cancer in late 2007, he reportedly confessed to friends that Dima was sold as a sex slave to a man in the Ukraine in late 2005 and had lived until late 2006 when he’d committed suicide.

The actual song—shared in the video below, which was released earlier this month—contains heartbreaking lyrics from the perspective of Dima.  Principle songwriter Bradford Cox beautifully delivers these sorrowful words of exploitation, abuse, helplessness, isolation and loneliness, which prove to be all the more sobering when heard in light of the article above.

Dima’s story is incredibly heartbreaking, and while he lost his life at the hands of those who would oppress, Deerhunter reminds us of the unfathomable struggle faced by those around the world that presently experience the horror of human trafficking.

Thank you Deerhunter for speaking for those who have no voice and for doing so in such a creative and effective manner. May we all be challenged to do the same and to seek to protect all people.

Mocking Hipster Faith

The tracking site for all things viral, Buzzfeed, has just picked up on something that we here at Lost in the Cloud pointed out like MONTHS ago*, namely, the ridiculously lame choice of a cover image for the “Hipster Faith” article in Christianity Today.  The more I think about it, the more I detest this book/article/subcultural label (while remaining ignorant of the whole argument, since I haven’t read the book, and with a big “no offense” to the author of said materials).

*Ok, it was less than one month, but in terms of the attention span of today’s kids, that’s like YEARS!

The same website also posted on the Calvin College decision to uninvite The New Pornographers to play at their school (a topic which my friend Rob Kirkendall thoughtfully comments upon here).  I give props to whomever at Calvin invited them to come in the first place, but this decision feels like it’s just feeding the public perception of evangelical ignorance and presumptuousness.  I’m sure there are so many students & faculty/staff at Calvin that hate this decision as well, so it shouldn’t reflect poorly on them (we’ll let their soteriology do that!  heh-heh, um, J/K?), but really the more Christians cave in to the conservative power-brokers, the more we taint the image of what it means to follow Christ in the world…it’s time for a revolution.  Perhaps, a SECOND Reformation anyone?