January 23, 2011 § 3 Comments
Fire. The word evokes long tongues of flame, yellow, orange and red, flicking back and forth through the night air. It follows no discernible pattern, untamed as it is, beckoning and threatening with its selfsame light and heat. Perhaps it is the mysterious quality of fire, its burning and comfort, that has so endeared it to the artist in his search for the perfect metaphor or simile to express the necessary emotion.
I recently watched The Road which tells the story of a Man (Viggo Mortensen) and his young Son (Kodi Smit-McPhee) in post-apocalyptic America as they journey southward in search of a better place to survive. Based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning book of the same title by Cormac McCarthy, The Road is bleak, as grays, brown and blacks dominate the landscape, with the only respite being flashbacks to the time before the war started. In both the film and book, however, there is a ray of light that bursts through the clouds from time to time as the Man interacts with his Son, spurring him on throughout the many difficult times they have. Refusing to let hope die, the Man tells his Son to keep carrying the fire, the fire within his soul. Often it seems as if this fire, this hope, is the only thing that sustains our main characters.
Fire is such a potent metaphor for this internal hope, this endless struggle between perseverance and defeat. If one fails to keep stoking their fire, it will inevitably go out, weakly smoldering until it ceases to give off warmth or light, a pile of forgotten black ash that returns to the soil. Such is the human life, and without doubt all our fires will encounter this final dampening. But what is so horrific and disappointing is those, like the bandits in The Road, who have put out their fire before their deaths. They have squelched their flames and given in to the ceaseless drudgery and overwhelming brokenness of life, their ashes only awaiting the final scattering to the wind. I sense in The Road a fierce rebellion to this way of looking at life, even though the characters inhabit an America filled with even more reasons to abandon hope.
It is this fire that hip hop group The Roots sing of in The Fire on their latest album How I Got Over. Like The Road, How I Got Over is an album filled with tales of hardships and problems that refuses to forsake hope. Black Thought raps, sounding like he’s read The Road, “I’m an icon when I let my light shine, shine bright as an example of a champion…Burn like a chariot, learn how to carry it…Fuel to the flame that I train with and travel with…I realize I’m supposed to reach for the skies, never let somebody try and tell you otherwise.” It’s a fantastic song that urges us to never give up, even amidst struggles and difficulties, which will surely come in this life.
If you permit me to speak metaphorically, we all have this fire inside of us, burning to varying degrees. Hope is hard to find sometimes in this world, but it exists, and it is this hope that can sustain us in the darkest of times. Don’t let your fire be put out by the cares of this world, keep blazing. After all if we’re carrying this fire, let’s carry it well.
January 14, 2011 § Leave a comment
Well, it’s that time again, although judging by the hundreds of year-end lists that have already appeared, I seem to be a little late. I don’t understand the preoccupation with forming year-end lists in early December. I mean the year isn’t even over by that point, I’d rather wait until January, which I have done. Anyway, if you read my Top Ten Pieces of Impacting Culture over at Mockingbird Blog you’ll notice a lot of overlap from that list to this one, as to be expected. I’ll be writing about five albums in particular, because I felt like picking ten was a bit of a stretch as I wasn’t able to listen to as much new music this year as I would have liked. So here’s the list, complete with Youtube videos galore.
1. The Age of Adz-Sufjan Stevens
I’m not sure what more I can say about The Age of Adz that I haven’t already said, but it continues to remain a revelation to me. By reinventing himself, Sufjan has created a masterful album full of strange noises and at times even stranger lyrics. But underneath all the alienating electronic buzz and depressing musings on life, runs a pulsing current of vitality, the same current that has always run through Sufjan’s music. This is Sufjan at his most personal, albeit slightly disguised behind the seemingly impersonal musical landscape, but I think this musical approach allows Sufjan to truly explore some of the darker corners of his personality without it become overbearing. Regardless, The Age of Adz is an amazing album, its joy tempered and then exalted through the very reality of life.
2. High Violet- The National
The National’s music is so beautiful, in part due to its understatement. Everything about The National seems relaxed, from their laid back music to their abstract lyrics. On closer listen, however, it becomes evident that The National is exploring deep emotions of the soul, often doing so through the mood created by their music and lyrics. High Violet does this exceedingly well, weaving tales of love, loss, fear, addiction and more together into an album that forces you to confront the insecurities and depressions of your own life. It’s an intense look into the soul and mind of the postmodern individual, revealing the struggles of most twenty-somethings that populate America right now, yet High Violet does manage to carry a sense of weathered hope, especially in its closing triad of songs.
3. Sigh No More-Mumford and Sons
If High Violet is beautiful in its understatement, then Sigh No More is beautiful in its zealousness. The neo-folk of Mumford and Sons is brash, hopeful and full of excitement. Blasting through its twelve songs, only stopping for breath briefly, Sigh No More is full of grand statements about life, love and God which is part of its charm. The British quartet is not afraid of wearing their collective heart on their sleeve, a refreshing change from some of the more emotionally guarded bands that exist. What I love about Mumford and Sons is that their optimism is grounded in reality. Sigh No More is relentlessly optimistic and hopeful, but it never sugarcoats the realities and problems of life, but points to a hope that these problems will eventually be made right. A beautiful album measured with grace and humility.
4. How I Got Over-The Roots
How I Got Over is an album that has continued to grow on me since I first heard it in the late summer. The Roots are one of those groups that consistently release albums that are thoughtful both musically and lyrically which is something that I greatly respect. How I Got Over is a dark album that by its end has risen above the darkness in triumph, celebrating life for both its peaks and its valleys. There is a definite shift in the album toward hope as its approaches its midpoint, and this hope comes to fruition in the album’s climatic song The Fire. It is made all the more celebratory because of what came before it, a beautiful realization that sometimes life’s best moments are found after going through the storm.
5. The Suburbs-Arcade Fire
In my opinion, The Suburbs is the Arcade Fire’s best album. It manages to combine their unique musical approach with lyrics that are able to evoke strong emotions, while avoiding many of the problems people have had with their lyrics in the past. The Suburbs is an honest album, delving into the experience of growing up in the suburbs and what suburbia has done to America. It is both nostalgic and critical at the same time, a difficult balance to strike. Full of the bold instrumentation and soaring vocals we’ve come to expect from the Arcade Fire, The Suburbs continues in the same steps as its predecessors, but is better than those albums ever were.
Here’s a few albums that I couldn’t put on my top five list, but deserve to be listened to as they are a bit out of the ordinary.
Juanes is not incredibly well known by English speaking people, but is one of Latin America’s hottest recording artists, for a good reason. He makes great music, pop-rock infused with a Latin sensibility, and sings more than generic love songs. His latest album is another great piece of music and is well worth checking out.
All Day- Girl Talk
I mentioned this album in my blog about the mashup, and I’m still digging it. All Day is extremely fun and creative, combining various pop hits from the past four decades into a new creation that gives these old songs new life. It can be downloaded for free here.
Feedback- Derek Webb
I love Derek Webb and his new album is an instrumental exploration of the Lord’s Prayer. The album is a multimedia affair, coming with abstract art and photographs that complement the music. Webb is always one to try new things, and Feedback is a stunning piece of art that needs to be experienced through the ears and eyes.