Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Thoughts on Loveless

How do I hear music? It’s an interesting question. I’m four hundred pages into Christopher Rick’s epic synopsis of Bob Dylan’s vision of sin and virtue. With painstaking attention to detail he attempts to analyze dozens and dozens of Dylan’s songs paying special attention to meter, rhyme patterns, lyricality and use of literary technique. Ninety percent of the book leaves me dry and distanced from the actual songs: acutely aware that the divine mystery of listening pleasure cannot be explained away by the songwriter’s artful use of iambic pentameter or a particularly devastating onomatopoeia. The other ten percent of the book drives deep into the heart of Dylan’s music, harnessing something of the lyricality, the heavy handed wordery, social commentary and wit which has elevated his music to mythical levels. There is something about the music I love most, the kind of music which feels like it is permanently anchored to the interior of my thoughts, which refuses to succumb to analysis. It is a constantly changing beauty, a difficult truth, a fluid sound which shifts with context, maturity, mood and even company.

Last night we spent a good hour in the company of My Bloody Valentine’s early 90’s masterpiece, Loveless. This record has been languishing at the bottom of my conscious for the better part of a decade. During my college years there was always a copy of Loveless propping up the pot plants and coffee mugs in some student dive or other. The record sleeve, (a terrible nineties blur of menstrual pinks and reds,) always takes me back to the days when color photocopying was still a wild luxury and had terrified me into drawing unfair assumptions about the sounds contained beneath. When Lost In Translation came out and allegiance to fuzzy guitars and static drone seemed to be a prerequisite for everyone under thirty five, I opted to get my kicks with The Jesus and Mary Chain. By the time I was ready to give My Bloody Valentine a fair listen I was twenty five years old, trapped in a gloomy basement, existing on a diet of second hand novels and mould. Occasionally I would slip in my earphones, sandwich them to my head with a huge pair of bright red industrial ear protectors and listen to Loveless until I began to blur the lines of conscious. It was the best of times and also not so great.

Three years later with a handful of friends, half of us MBV devotees, half of us recent converts, the record sounds like an entirely different slice of music. We sit back and listen to a few songs, some of the more “radio friendly” tunes plus a fair spattering of songs which might be better described as visual art. “Well what do you think?” says Nate who has been elected to steer the conversation tonight. We say the obvious things using words like experimental, difficult and even visionary. We start to swap facts. Did you know that MBV single-handedly destroyed Creation? Did you know that the flurries of sound are made by employing the following technique on an electric guitar? Did you know that MBV went through twenty odd producers before they finally got Loveless in the can? This kind of fact swapping fun could keep me up all night because it comes so easy to me. It comes from the same place as modern record reviews which seem to say less about the songs themselves and more about the reviewer’s impressive and somewhat pithy knowledge of obscure bands and records. I realize five minutes into the discussion that most of us, like Christopher Ricks, are much more comfortable with the concrete when it comes to assessing the worth of a piece of music or art. Facts are fine, guitars, amps and synthesizers perfect, rhythm, meter and rhyme schemes just dandy; after all aren’t they the mathematics of rock music? You can always prove yourself right or wrong picking out which make of guitar is being butchered or what the lyrics refer to. The abstract edge of music is a little more difficult to love.

After we pushed through the preliminaries we began to wrestle with the real dark heart of Loveless. We said things like, “doesn’t it feel like contractions?” and “I feel like I’m underwater in a bad, industrial way,” and “I forgot that I was listening to music. It feels exactly like dreaming.” We used the word feel enough times to wonder if this record doesn’t go beyond simple music to a kind of music/visual mixed media where sound can actually be shaped, felt and visualized. We did not analyze the lyrics. It is impossible to analyze the lyrics of MBV unless you have their songs on some kind of bizarro David Lynch does karaoke sing-along cd. MBV do not print lyrics on their sleeve notes. They go out of their way to create beautiful lyrics and hide them under dense, fuzzy waves of see-sawing guitars. Perhaps they want their listeners to wrestle with the abstract beauty of the whole rather than the smaller, funneled beauties of each individual part.

Later in the evening, "Only Shallow", still crunching in our ears, Nate and I retired to the Hutch for further synopsis and beer. This question of abstract beauty has dominated every one of our last three conversations and My Bloody Valentine had given us a fresh vehicle for debate. Nate takes photographs. I write stories. Both Nate and I become obsessed with these huger visions of beauty; abstract glimpses of God which come peeking through the trees when you’re content and marching in your Winter boots, the way condensation collects on a coffee mug, the inside of your head first thing in the morning. All these thoughts are abstract in the extreme. They concern God, love, beauty, truth, fear and all those other overplayed themes. They are each and every one a great concept to spend your life wrestling into art. The problem being both Nate and myself are constantly bogged down in the concrete. We take these airy, ephemeral beauties and trap them inside clumpy plot lines or fuzzy shots. Instead of distilling the bigness into something neat, fit and intense, we end up diluting the enormity of the abstract as it gets funneled through a very concrete and somewhat limiting means. Despite our every effort we find ourselves frustrated by thee end product of thin stories and distant photos. In short we are nowhere near Loveless and oftentimes crippled by fear of falling short.

Today I listened to Loveless again, walking round Portland on an uncharacteristically fine January day. Alone and moving it was a completely different record. I stopped under a tree and my head felt like a sleeping machine, lungs contracting and expanding from deep underwater. I saw the tree branches spindly armed and grasping, etched into the blue, blue sky and in a second knew the bigness of an unquantifiable beauty. This is the same kind of abstract wonder that wraps itself around God himself. The entire Bible is full of writers lost for words in pursuit of God’s beauty. Again and again the Old Testament writers fall back on simile and comparison, God is like this or God is like that. No one seems comfortable with describing God in concrete terms: no one is capable but this does not deter them from trying to capture even the smallest hem of his garment. Perhaps there is a desire in all of us to wrestle with the enormities of abstract beauty and truth, to keep funneling these truths through the art we make, art which will always fail and fall short of our intentions.

Jan Carson
(Jan blogs at

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