All Eternals Deck

May 7, 2011 § Leave a comment

From the opening notes of Damn These Vampires to the closing lines of Liza Forever Minnelli, All Eternals Deck is a upward journey through the dark places of the human psyche and condition into a place of a certain contentment, touching on matters of utmost importance often veiled in cryptic phraseology. Like many of The Mountain Goats previous releases, All Eternals Deck continues to touch on the deepest failures and fears of human life, but manages to push through these tribulations toward a genuine awareness that although this world is still marred by pain and sorrow, beauty and healing can be found. In this way, All Eternals Deck reminds me of The Sunset Tree in its ability to address deeply personal matters in such a way that the listener can experience their own emotions in the obliquely worded lyrics of John Darnielle. This time around the music matches the songs and is quite worthy in its own right unlike the majority of The Mountain Goat’s last album, The Life of the World to Come, which suffered from similar sounding music and poor pacing.

Our journey begins with the mournful piano of Damn These Vampires, a slow burning meditation about vampires. As Darnielle sings in the chorus, “Crawl ’til dawn/On my hands and knees/God damn these vampires/For what they’ve done to me,” one can’t help but wonder what these vampires represent. Is Darnielle musing on on the general state of mankind, drawn in by dark and mysterious things until it is too late to escape? Or do the vampires represent the past, unshakable memories that haunt and wound?  Whatever the case may be, Damn These Vampires sets up the brooding and questioning nature of the rest of the album, where allusions, references and metaphors abound and it is up to the listener to untangle them and make sense of Darnielle’s lyrics.

These metaphysical concerns and references keep coming up throughout the album, and with them it seems as if Darnielle is attempting to answer or at least consider some larger questions of life. The album’s third track, Estate Sale Sign, is full of religious imagery and lyrics mentioning memory, while the music draws the song along at a quick clip, not giving us the luxury of really being able to catch the meaning. Lines like, “Worked hard to build this altar…the sacrificial stains all spreading out and and soaking through,” and, “Stock shots, stupid stock shots…set up like unloved icons gathering dust up on the wall/from films no one remembers,” draw our attention to the recurring theme of memory, the past and forgetfulness that Darnielle seems particularly occupied with on this album. Age of Kings, whose musical backdrop is pristine, featuring some beautiful string arrangements, picks up this theme of memory again, as Darnielle sings of a past relationship. The last verse is gut-wrenching, “Small chambers sinking ’til they vanish/Wolves in the hallway gaining ground/Reach down to the moment when I should have said something true/Shadows and their sources now stealing away with you.” 

After the moody The Autopsy Garland urges its recipient to remember certain places and times, Beautiful Gas Mask takes over the listener’s ear drums. The refrain commands us to “Never sleep, remember to breathe deep,” trying to make us calm and alert at the same time as we try to stay together in the face of nameless shadows and an eventual reckoning with someone or something. High Hawk Season asks us how we will be remembered, “Who will rise and who will sing?/Who’s going to stand his ground and who’s going to blink?”  There is almost a sense of paranoia in Darnielle’s voice as he sings, “Rise if you’re sleeping, stay awake,” as if the world is coming to an end or that this may be the only chance we have to truly live, taking advantage of every day.

Prowl Great Cain deals with the curse that bad memories can bring, and I can’t help but wonder if this song is mining the same autobiographical territory as The Sunset Tree in Darnielle handling the memory of his abusive father. As the song draws near its close and Darnielle wails, “Sometimes a great wave of forgetfulness rises up and blesses me/And other times the sickness howls and I despair of any remedy,” I am reminded of the scars of the past that haunt all of us. The very next song, Sourdoire Valley Song, highlights another facet of memory, the bittersweet nature of leaving things behind that once held such joy. In a few words, the song’s chorus beautifully sums up having to leave behind memories and the past as we move forward, “And then the grass grows to cover up the fire pit and the forge/Half a world away from the Olduvai Gorge.”

It is with Outer Scorpion Squadron that the album begins to take a turn to the positive. In this soft, touching ballad, Darnielle sings of conjuring up ghosts of the past, learning to live with them and eventually putting them behind you. He seems to suggest that once you own your past and the many terrible, painful things that make up a part of it you can begin to make steps toward healing, and with the final three songs of the album, this healing begins to manifest itself. For Charles Bronson encourages a certain Stoicism toward the past, advising to concentrate on good things and try to live as if the past has no hold on you or your current state. I think many pass through this stage on their way to realizing that true healing never comes in this manner.

Healing comes in the awareness of our own failure to ever escape the past and its damage, and this is what Never Quite Free masterfully shows. On this Earth, the closest we may come to true freedom is this deep and difficult realization that our past makes us who we are and we have to learn to live with it and the way it has shaped us. The most cathartic song on the album by far, I can identify with Darnielle as he almost whispers the verses, and the second one especially hits home, “It’s okay to find the faith to saunter forward/There’s no fear of shadows spreading where you stand/And you’ll breathe easier just knowing the worst is all behind you/And the waves that tossed the raft all night have set you on dry land.” Now, maybe the worst isn’t behind me, but I know that the struggles and wounds of the past and present have shaped me and will continue to do so as long as I live. In order to move toward healing, we have to acknowledge our flawed and damaged state or we may forever remain entrapped by our pain and our suffering, not understanding that everyone has their own skeletons in their closets: we are no different.

All Eternals Deck is a challenging, but rewarding album. For those who want a straightforward message in their music, this is not the album for them, but for those who invest careful attention it will reveal a deeper message, spoken through metaphor and imagery. By wrestling with his past in an open and vulnerable way, Darnielle encourages us to take a second look at our own past and how we can find healing in our circumstances, a topic he frequently sings about. I can’t recommend this album enough.

Thoughts on Justice

May 2, 2011 § Leave a comment

Note: Spoilers ahoy!

With the recent death of Osama Bin Laden, cyberspace exploded with tweets, Facebook statuses and blog posts. Suddenly, Osama became relevant again, and for Americans, his death became a symbol of justice being served, the triumph of the Red, White and Blue over evil and terror. I question this definition of justice. When justice becomes about repaying evil with death in a vengeful manner, does it cease to become justice? When justice becomes about beating chests in a nationalistic fury, is it still justice? Is any violent form of justice dispensed by fallen mankind true and meaningful?

Gran Torino (Eastwood, 2008) is a film deeply concerned with justice in many ways. Eastwood’s film builds upon his previous work in Unforgiven where we first begin to see him questioning the vigilante justice portrayed in his earlier films. In Gran Torino, Eastwood seems to be making a definitive statement about the both the danger and the true nature of justice. Playing a grizzled factory worker Walt, Eastwood begrudgingly befriends a young Hmong boy Thao (Bee Vang) and his sister Sue (Ahney Her), and helps steer him down the right path. As the movie draws to its conclusion, a Hmong gang led by Thao’s cousin takes exception to Thao’s rejection of their life, shoots up his house and rapes Sue. From this point on, I believe the film shows us how to approach justice in this world.

Understandably, Thao wishes to go after the gang and revenge his sister, bringing justice to her for the act of violence they committed against her. Killing them will bring justice to Thao’s world at this instant, as he is consumed by vengeful passion and anger. Given Eastwood’s track record, we expect him to take Thao under his wing and storm the gang, finishing the film in a bloody gunfight. Even after Walt locks Thao in his basement to prevent him from joining him in the eventual confrontation, we still think Walt is going to go out in a blaze of violent glory. So what does Walt, and by extension Eastwood, do? He completely subverts our expectations of him and of justice.

Eastwood is smart, he knows what the audience expects from him given his previous work and when he approaches the house where the Hmong gang is staying with his hand in his coat pocket, we are waiting for his to pull out his trusty pistol and start blasting away. We never see it coming when he instead pulls out his lighter, and the gang rips him apart with bullets, leaving him to die on the ground. In this act, Walt has saved Thao from his own angry passions and has brought the gang to justice, as the police show up to find an unarmed man murdered.

Is this true justice? Instead of a violent outburst that leaves the perpetrators dead, Walt has given his life in a non-violent rejection of the prevailing view of  justice. Violence would not have  brought the gang to justice or helped Sue and Thao, it simply would have created more violence. Walt decided to not take justice into his own hands, but to let God sort it out and in this way arrived at real justice. Perhaps we arrive at justice through the much harder route of self-sacrifice, not the knee-jerk reaction of violence.

Note: If you want a hearty theological and philosophical take on violence, justice and the Other read Miroslav Volf’s Exclusion and Embrace. It’s an incredible book. 

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