July 14, 2013 § Leave a comment
Before I discuss the two most important religious songs on Yeezus, I do want to address some of the questionable religious lyrics on this album. I’m not going to gloss over them, but I want to point out how even though Kanye seems to be using them as ammunition for jokes or his angry diatribes, it’s worth noting that the vocabulary of Christianity is still very much a part of his lyrics, as it has been since 2004’s The College Dropout. (side note: I’m not trying to turn Kanye into a beacon of religious excellence, but I do want to provide perhaps a more nuanced perspective to how some religious people view him.) Outside of the obvious religious nature of “Jesus Walks,” The College Dropout features an interlude of “I’ll Fly Away” and “Through the Wire” invokes spiritual ideas near its end: “I must got an angel, cause look how death missed his ass…So I turn tragedy to triumph, make music that’s fire, spit my soul through the wire.” Late Registration and Graduation also have a number of songs that reference spiritual concepts: “Diamonds from Sierra Leone,” “Hey Mama,” “Can’t Tell Me Nothing,” and “Everything I Am,” to name a few. Religious ideas keep popping up in Kanye’s lyrics, and often in very strange places, as I’ll point out later when I bring up MBDTF, but rarely are they as negative or offensive as some of the references on Yeezus.
I want to tackle these few moments, because while they are certainly offensive, I would hesitate to call them blasphemous or sacrilegious. I’ll start with “I’m In It,” easily my least favorite song on Yeezus and perhaps in Kanye’s entire discography, which contains some questionable comments on religious ideas and figures. In a song that is basically only about sex, it would be hard for these lyrics to carry any kind of beneficial religious significance, and the way Kanye uses them here make that a near impossibility. Let’s just say that invoking God’s name when talking about your girlfriend, ahem, revealing certain portions of her anatomy (“thank God Almighty, they free at last”) may be a fine reaction to have in private, but I’m not sure it should be immortalized in song. I could probably spin this line in a positive light if the rest of the song wasn’t so vulgar/misogynistic, and if the final lines of the song didn’t reference “getting head by the nuns.” Really, “I’m In It” isn’t funny or intelligent, but it is interesting to see a reference to God pop up in a song of this type. Later in the album on “Send It Up,” another track ostensibly about sex, Kanye offers up this line: “Yeezus just rose again.” Now, whether this is merely a sophomoric joke (I’m sure you are smart enough to figure out what that could mean) that ends up treating the resurrection as a comic matter or whether ‘Ye is trying to be Jesus, this line again shows a very important piece of Christian doctrine being employed by Kanye to add further levels of depth to a fairly meaningless song.
In fact, this particular fragment of a lyric may be operating on multiple levels of meaning. For example, it could be a joke that nonetheless reflects a religious idea to which Kanye still ascribes or gives some credence. Ironically, the song that best demonstrates this idea is “I Am a God,” where, according to certain critics, Kanye suggests that he is a deity. However, a closer listen to this incredibly compelling song reveals something else entirely. First of all, I find it difficult to claim this song as Kanye elevating himself over God, oh, I don’t know, maybe due to lyrics like this: “I am a god, even though I am a man of God, my whole life in the hand of God, y’all better quit playing with God.” Outside of proclaiming himself as a god, this is a shockingly orthodox statement of trust in God, and in the next verse ‘Ye talks about chatting with Jesus. That kind of discussion would not sound out of place in any evangelical church service, which makes this song so bizarre, and why I read this song as more of an indictment on claiming to be a god. I mean, come on, “Hurry up with my damn croissants”? If that’s not a suggestion that the idea of being a god is superficial and absurd, than what is? Also, “I Am a God” is punctuated by violent screams and gasping for breath near its end. If claiming to be a god leads to a nervous breakdown, then take me off the list.
The album closer, “Bound 2,” takes up some of these themes as well and extends a theme from MBDTF‘s closing track “Lost in the World,” bringing all of what I’ve been discussing into clearer focus. Most evidently, I think that “Bound 2” pulls back the curtain for a moment near its end, allowing Kanye to shed his persona for a moment, much like he did at the close of MBDTF—what’s behind the façade is someone a lot like you and me. Why do I think this is the “real” Kanye? Well, two things: one, “Bound 2” is the only song that sounds like old Kanye, dripping with soulful samples and goofy lyrics; and two, a couple lines in the song seem to be addressing the listener directly. For example, “admitting is the first step, eh, eh, ain’t nobody perfect,” confronts those people who have called Kanye out for his stupid decisions and who would give the same justification for their own poor decisions. Then, one of the final lines, “I’m tired, you’re tired. Jesus wept.” The exhaustion of keeping up this persona has finally caught up with Kanye on this final track, and this line treads similar ground to one from “Lost in the World”: “Let’s break out of this fake-ass party, turn this into a classic night.” This “party” shows up again in “Bound 2” and provides an answer to the reason Kanye invokes the image of Jesus weeping. “I know you’re tired of loving, with nobody to love, so just grab somebody, no leaving this party with nobody to love,” goes “Bound 2,” foregrounding the idea and importance of love. The weeping Jesus is the human Jesus, the one crying out of love for his friends. And this is the Jesus Kanye chooses to leave us with as Yeezus closes.
For those of you unfamiliar with the Biblical story, Jesus weeps and then raises Lazarus from the dead, leaving some puzzled as to why Jesus would be crying when he knew he was about to perform a miracle. Perhaps Kanye’s reason for titling this album Yeezus and concluding it with such an evocative image of Jesus is just as puzzling to some. What’s clear to me, regardless of whether or not this music is edifying or not, is that religious ideas, notably Christian ideas, still float throughout Kanye’s music, even on an album (given its title) that should not be taking religion seriously. Furthermore, one of the final images of Yeezus is not Kanye parading himself as a god, but a picture of Jesus as a human, deeply connected to humanity and sharing in its sufferings out of a deep compassion. We all need more of that kind of compassion, regardless of where or who it comes from, and Kanye is admitting that here. The most startling aspect of this admittance is that I don’t hear it more often.
For my take on Jay Z’s latest, check out my review at the Mockingbird Blog.
June 4, 2012 § Leave a comment
Part One of an open letter to Thrice, my favorite band, on the occasion of their farewell tour.
I can’t believe it’s all over—you’re not making music any more. I first met you in 2005, at the tender age of 16, just after you had released your fourth album Vheissu, which remains one of my favorite albums of all time, even now with seven more years of music listening under my belt. Shortly after this, I discovered 2003’s The Artist in the Ambulance, its hard-hitting music perhaps only overshadowed by its lyrical bite, and it wasn’t long before you became one of my favorite bands. You have remained so until this day, growing in my respect as you refused to sell out, but continued to push your music in new directions with what came after Vheissu. And if the show I was at on May 27th is indeed the final time I will see you, I wanted to write you this letter to thank you for what your music has meant to me throughout high school, college and, even, grad school.
What you probably don’t know is that your music came to me at a time I was breaking away from the maudlin Christian music that constituted the majority of my music library up until sophomore year of high school or so. I was discovering artists like U2 and Sufjan Stevens, broadening my musical horizons, and then I stumbled upon your music: heavy, deep and beautiful. Once Vheissu began with “Image of the Invisible” bursting from the ether, I was hooked: this was something different than I had heard before. And the album keeps hitting—“The Earth Will Shake,” “Hold Fast Hope,” and “Dust of Nations” just to name a few songs. Yet, it exquisitely balances these heavy riffs and harsh vocals with lighter tracks like “Atlantic” and “Music Box” before ending with “Red Sky.” I remember thinking to myself, “This is art. This band knows how to make deep, inspiring music without sacrificing artistry.”
I soon began listening to the rest of your music: the fantastic, stirring The Artist in the Ambulance; the fast-paced, aggrieved The Illusion of Safety; and the raw, energetic Identity Crisis. While Identity Crisis and The Illusion of Safety certain do not rise to the heights of your later work, it’s evident that from the beginning of your career there was something special, a certain spark in your music. For instance, “Phoenix Ignition” and “T&C,” the two songs from your debut album that you played at the show, contain passion and energy without resorting to manufactured anger. Then there’s “Deadbolt” from your second album, ripping through its two and half minute running time with a relentless focus and intensity before fading to a remorseful 30 seconds of piano, expertly highlighting the song’s interplay between passion and regret. My personal favorite from The Illusion of Safety is “So Strange I Remember You,” another song that balances slower passages with torrid drumming and guitar work to excellent effect.
As entertaining and exciting your first two albums were, nothing, for me at least, can compare with The Artist in the Ambulance and Vheissu. I don’t think there is one bad song on The Artist in the Ambulance, and many songs on that album were instrumental in helping me make sense of my final two years of high school. “Under a Killing Moon,” the inspiration of my Xbox gamertag, takes Arthur Miller’s The Crucible/the Salem Witch Trials and transforms their stories into a blistering rumination on standing up for your convictions. In fact, you almost sound like a different band—more confident, bolstered by better production values and improved music and vocals. Without letting up, the album moves into lead single “All That’s Left,” a story of faith lost due to a lack of room for questions, “We are the dead, a ghost of everything we thought but never said.” What you couldn’t have known is I was searching and asking questions of my faith, and this song and “Stare at the Sun” gave me the courage to keep asking those questions at a crucial point in my life. I remember singing along to the chorus of “Stare at the Sun” with all my might, just as I did the other night: “Cause I am due for a miracle, I’m waiting for a sign. I’ll stare straight into the sun, and I won’t close my eyes, ‘til I understand or go blind.”
To be continued…
January 10, 2012 § Leave a comment
Just wanted to let all of you know that my top ten albums list is posted over at Mockingbird Blog (link here). Also, I’m pleased to announce I’ll be contributing to their fine blog from time to time so make sure to check over there frequently to read my contributions as well as the other excellent posts from their contributors at http://www.mbird.com. You can also follow them on twitter @mockingbirdnyc.
Also, be on the look out for a post later this week about some honorable mentions in terms of my favorite music of the year and hopefully in a couple weeks I’ll post my top ten films of the year.
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.
February 15, 2011 § 2 Comments
Seattle is a city most well known for coffee, rain and grunge rock. Recently, however, they have experienced a boom in independent hip hop as artists like The Blue Scholars have been steadily producing high quality hip hop, musically and lyrically. My personal favorite group from Seattle is Common Market. I was turned on to Common Market by Relevant magazine, and I picked up their second full album Tobacco Road. I was met by a plethora of chill beats produced by Dj Sabzi and perfectly strung together words spit by the immense talent of RA Scion.
The first thing you’ll notice about Common Market is the intelligence that they bring to hip hop. Scion’s lyrics are a melting pot of story and biography, and his raps are an adventurous romp through an array of expertly delivered vocabulary words that make up a truly unique hip hop experience. Both members of Common Market are Baha’i, a faith that values nonviolence and peaceful treatment of others, and this spiritual and political bent shows through in their lyrics. We’re going to take a look at some of their music to highlight their positive contributions to hip hop.
Their first album Common Market is packed full of songs that are full of a driving energy with real hope behind it that seems to suggest that we can band together to make things better. On Every Last One Scion spits:
It’s our intent to re-implement modesty/Demandin’ self-respect be the market’s hottest commodity/Regulate the wealth and decimate extreme poverty/and educate kids with every dollar from the lottery/We ’bout to change the mentality/of old world savagery into a new reality/One where teachers and lawyers will change salaries/and liquor stores are razed to make way for art galleries…
This is not your average radio hip hop. This is two dudes, passionate about changing the way we think about the world and encouraging us to think about how we can actually make a change. Later on in the album on Love One, over a soulful beat from Sabzi, Scion raps about the women in his life: his mom, sister, wife and daughter. It’s a beautiful song that celebrates everything good about femininity and shows that Common Market’s approach to women is not formed by the prevailing view of the hip hop genre.
After their first album, filled with many more songs like those I highlighted above, Common Market released an EP before dropping Tobacco Road. Tobacco Road is a stunning album, dripping with soul, Scion’s lyrics perfectly complemented by Sabzi’s production. The album bursts out of the doors with Trouble Is, but it is the second song Gol’Dust that captures my attention immediately. The song is a exemplary look at greed and the many ways it influences our daily lives. My favorite lines come at the end of the song: “And what’s a legacy worth next to mined metal, yo/Measure me first–depression, it’s better we work/For change, not for pennies, if anything the commodity traded is us for flakes of gold dust.“
Tobacco Road is an album concerned with the way in which we work, the affects of industrialization and, ultimately, the way we live our lives. Nina Sing touches on poverty and societal inequality in work and economic conditions. The final verse is a perfect example: “Seein’ fam fallin’ through the cracks in the variance/Famished on a barren land of AIDS and malaria/One percent could fix it with a tenth of their inheritance/Freedom buried in the treasure chest of the nefarious.” Regardless of whether or not you agree with their conclusions, there is no doubt that Common Market is exploring important territory with a level of maturity and verbosity that should be respected. The album concludes with the title track, an homage to Tobacco Road in Kentucky, which also offers up a introspective look on growing up and leaving home. “Mindful of the nights in that state, who they say life is what you make it/When really life is what makes you…The schools failed me, thank God the farm taught me/The value of a calloused hand, how to work and plow this land/How even a modest crop will make your pop the proudest man.”
Common Market is a independent hip hop group that is not afraid to tackle big issues and they do it in an intellectual, effective way. Their songs are loaded with words and ideas that are available for anyone who is willing to listen. Positive and socially conscious, Common Market is making great music with a worthwhile message.