Monthly Archives: October 2011

The Sound of failure

I’ve been watching the new Sam Bain/Jesse Armstrong vehicle, Fresh Meat, and almost wishing I could relive my undergraduate years. You’re not supposed to think that—not if you’re a recent graduate, in a stable job—but, then again, my three years at the LSE were atypical to say the least, and I do sometimes wish I could go back and do things differently: live on a campus; not fear for your reputation; hang loose a little.

This feeling of nostalgia for the unremembered made me think of two songs by The Flaming Lips, which showcase the Oklahoma trio at their most bittersweet. Both appear on At War With The Mystics, a more guitar-led record which is also adorned by the most overpowering studio confectionery. “The Sound of Failure / It’s Dark… Is It Always This Dark??” is saccharine, but not in the “overly sweet sense”. Rather, I refer to the sentimentality at the core of this seven-minute song, which weaves in and out of a spare, Spanish-sounding melody, over which Wayne Coyne plays the part of a lovesick troubadour. The more maximal parts are draped in flutes and a rather odd, plaintive chord sequence played on a pleading electric guitar. At the song’s climax, vocal harmonies escape as emissions from celestial bodies, before it ebbs back into the original semi-acoustic figure, with Coyne doing his Neil Young impression. The final minute is a gently interminable passage, with twinkly synths backing rather New Age flute. Think of the whole thing as flower power’s answer to Justin Timberlake’s “LoveStoned/I Think She Knows“.

A little later in the album, we get “Mr. Ambulance Driver“, whose verses could fit right in on The Soft Bulletin. Coyne is self-deprecating, and the gently brushed guitar wash over muffled Rhodes piano. The chorus rides in on the titular ambulance’s siren, with a few tentative shoves of overdriven Rhodes and Hammond. A rarity on this album, there are no instrumental outros or ponderous codas—just verse chorus verse chorus bridge extended-chorus—but it’s lovingly assembled and so heartfelt. The guitars aren’t processed through Dave Fridmann‘s digestive tract, for a change, the lyrics are starry-eyed rather than cosmic, and it knows when to end.

These are the songs that we turn to when we are gripped by a sense of longing for that which we cannot readily retrieve.

The Angel in Styx

I’ve written plenty about Hercules & Love Affair on this blog, but I don’t think I’ve drawn nearly enough attention to the genius of that outfit’s first album’s key vocal talent—Antony, of the Johnsons fame.

Like so many others, I was introduced to the NYC collective Antony and the Johnsons via their second album, I Am A Bird Now, which scooped the Mercury Prize in 2005, beating off all the post-punk brethren that populated the shortlist (and about whom I have blogged semi-furiously in the last fortnight). Unlike many others, I also stuck with Antony and the Johnsons through their subsequent releases.

Last year, I mentioned the regeneratory qualities of the title track to their most recent album, Swanlights, but they may well have nailed this art form with the opening track on I Am A Bird Now, five years previous. “Hope There’s Someone“, which begins with the devastating couplet, “Hope there’s someone who will take care of me / When I die, will I go?”, is the twenty-first century’s most sophisticated contemplation on the transition between this life and whatever comes next. Like a Hamlet for the gender-confused, Antony reveals he is scared of that “middle place, between light / and nowhere”. So far, so Shakespearean ballad. But halfway through, the plaintive piano melody is suddenly interrupted by pounding, Styxian chords backed by harrowing vocal exclamations. A cyclical organ figure makes the passage yet more pocket-apocalyptic. And then it all recedes, leaving just a solitary, wandering vocal filigree.

It’s a spine-tingling song that begins in elegiac fashion before morphing into a frenzied, panic-laden nightmare.