My Year in Lists chronicles one blogger's quest to understand why music matters to us and what makes it a lasting aspect of our existence. To facilitate this examination, three music fans have contributed a list of 52 essential albums. Each week this year, one album off of each list will be analyzed in an attempt to understand why some music sticks with us and what it means for our lives.
"But I don't think in the overall historical perspective, people are going to care. I don't listen to lyrics." "I listen to the sound of the words."-Jim and Robert Pollard
Music is arguably the most expressive medium in the realm of pop culture. At its most base, music can be reduced to little more than the communication of a feeling in a way that very few other media can get across. Yet how important are lyrics to that process? I have admitted before in this space that I am a big lyrics man. My favorite bands are almost always masters at lyrics, my favorite songs often have a turn of phrase that knocks my socks off, and my most accessible way into an album is a particularly well written song. However, I have also discussed in this space that a large part of the purpose of My Year in Lists is to expand my musical boundaries. So, in furtherance of that goal (and because these three albums happened to be oat the same place on my lists), this week we will look at three albums that put less emphasis on lyrical content than on emotional content. Two of the three are largely instrumental works, and the third is by a band that openly disregards the importance of lyrics to their music.
Current 93 was formed by David Tibet (born David Michael Bunting) in 1982, aimed at creating experimental music in folk-based forms. They released their first album, and Tab's pick this week, Nature Unveiled in 1984. David Tibet compared the sounds found on the album to the appearance of shadows cast by a candle's flame, and the darkly atmospheric and religious feeling of the album fits that description to a tee.
The first track, "Ach Golgotha (Maldoror is Dead)" is full of reverberated moans and chants and feels mired in a dark religious fervor, as if Tibet is summoning, and then rejecting the presence of the Antichrist (the fact that he screams "Antichrist" several times helps to get that across). "The Mystical Body of Christ in Chorazim (The Great in the Small)" features a guest appearance by Annie Anxiety, who heightens the atmosphere of human cries, monastic chants, and unidentifiable radio sounds and adds a meaning to the cacophony.
Throughout the entire career of Current 93, Tibet has been obsessed with the occult, Aleister Crowley, surrealism, mysticism, Christian imagery and apocalyptic narratives, and Nature Unveiled provides a window into the dark side of these obsessions. Tibet clearly struggles with questions of good and evil and with man's capacity to do both, and these issues permeate the album completely. Whether the choice to communicate through sounds rather than lyrics (for the most part) is ideal is a difficult question. On the one hand, it seems to me that tackling such heady ideas without laying much groundwork lyrically makes the album fairly inaccessible to the casual listener (though something tells me Current 93 wasn't planning on having many casual listeners when they recorded this album). On the other, the ideas Tibet is playing with on the album as so huge that trying to tie them to words might have been a futile exercise. Sometimes sound can convey meaning that would be elusive to lyrics, can get at our guts and our primal side in a way that eloquence has more trouble with. I can't say that I loved Nature Unveiled. At times it seemed woefully unorganized and a tad immature. Those are both problems that may be confined to a debut album, yet they keep the record from fully connecting with me. Though Steve Stapleton of Nurse With Wound produced the album, it lacks the cohesion of much of his work. Tibet plays with interesting ideas here, but he's made an album that, taken by itself, is not all that interesting.
Guided by Voices formed in Dayton Ohio in 1983, originally as a bar band working only the local scene. Eventually, however, the band moved towards a studio-only orientation, allowing group members to keep their day jobs and record at night. The band returned to playing live, and left Ohio for the first time in 1993, touring to New York and Philadelphia to capitalize on their growing fan base among acolytes of REM, Sonic Youth, and The Breeders. The next year saw the band recording their seventh studio album, and Ashley's pick this week, Bee Thousand, which took the group to the level at which they could finally quit their day jobs and got them the attention of Matador Records, where they would soon sign a record deal.
Inspired by British-Invasion era rock and punk, the album contains many surreal lyrics relating to songwriter Robert Pollard's experiences as a father, a teacher, and a musician. Recorded on primitive home recording devices in the garages and basements of members, and as a result many demo takes actually appear on the album. Few of the songs on it were actually written for the album; it largely consisted of overdubbed, rerecorded or edited versions of older, unused material. The album has an often-surreal feel, taking cues from psychedelia and filled with the often nonsensical lyrics of Pollard. "The Goldheart Mountaintop Queen Directory," was written after Pollard had an LSD trip in which he perceived his face turning into the face of his son, but the song's lyrics don't reflect that at all. "Gold Star for Robot Boy" deals with childishness and is built largely from the statements and actions of Pollard's fourth grade class at the time.
"Supermarket the Moon" (which was included in the Director's Cut release of the album) is a moving song about getting over doubt. "Rainbow Billy" takes an entirely different vocal approach, sounding more balladic and old fashioned than anything else on the album. Pollard has freely admitted that often his lyrics don't make conventional sense, and that he aims more for words that sound good together than words that make sense in the order he presents them. He and his bandmates have often discussed their view that lyrics aren't important in rock music and that no one should aim for any depth of meaning inside a rock song. Instead, they aim to create a unique pop-rock sound that is interesting and compelling outside of having any particular meaning. And they are successful to an extent. Bee Thousand is an often fun album with several catchy songs and a few that seem to aim for a deeper meaning, or at least wander into one accidentally.
Godspeed You! Black Emperor formed in 1994 in Montreal, taking its name from a Japanese documentary following a biker gang named the Black Emperors. They released Collin's pick this week, Slow Riot for New Zero Kanada in 1999. The first track, "Moya" was named after the band's guitarist, Mike Moya, who played on the EP but left the band before it was released. The track is dark and ambient, but more propulsive and melodic than the darkness on Current 93's album. The EP's liner notes contain biblical verses that discuss God's potential destruction of an area, and the song sounds like the sort of dirge that might accompany said destruction, mournful at times and powerfully destructive at others. The second track, "Blaise Bailey Finnegan III" is centered around the ramblings of an interviewee who goes by the titular name. During the song, Finnegan recites a poem he claims to have written, though the poem is in fact mostly composed of lyrics from the song "Virus" by Iron Maiden. The members of Godspeed were apparently unaware of this at the time, but that adds to the fun of his rant.
Finnegan's words are the only vocals on the album, but the music behind his rants really gets to the more tragic point the band seems to be making. For Godspeed, the emotion of the music is enough to carry the album and anything else is almost superfluous. Like Current 93 before them, Godspeed seems aimed at ideas that would be hard to verbalize, and so the music expresses them more meaningfully than any lyrics ever could. Unlike Current 93, Godspeed's Slow Riot for New Zero Kanada makes me feel while Nature Unveiled only made me think about what the band was feeling.
Ultimately, I'm still a lyrics man at the end of the day. But I have learned over the course of this year that some ideas are better expressed nonverbally. Some messages can't be verbalized, and some themes are too abstract or too large to be reduced to words. I don't think that this makes instrumental music any better than music with lyrics, but it certainly isn't inherently worse. And, as Guided By Voices illustrated, a lot of music that contains lyrics isn't centered around those lyrics and doesn't depend on them for its deeper meaning. Sometimes it doesn't even have any deeper meaning, or at least not one the songwriters intend or can vocalize. Music can be the most pure way to convey feeling, whether or not that feeling can be verbalized. And for someone as verbose and verbally focused as I tend to be, sometimes it can be great to just sit back, listen to the melody, and feel your way through a song.Read more My Year in Lists here
Next week on My Year in Lists:
We will look at three releases by the maturely named Rudimentary Peni, including their self titled EP, Farce and Death Church, hear Oasis qualify their answers on Definitely Maybe and drop in on Outkast's Stankonia.