"He gets compared to Ashbery and Wallace Stevens sometimes when critics reach for literary reference points, and fair enough, but one could make an equally strong case for Malkmus as the Thomas Hardy of rock…" (me)
You know who really is like Ashbery, though, is Dan Bejar. Neither of them are afraid of the gaudiness of the purely ornamental style, though neither of them give into it completely (key difference from Stevens (Wallace and/or Sufjan)): they always make sure to keep a line open to the demotic. And neither of them go in for rhyme and meter (with occasional, significant exceptions) but both have a very sure and characteristic sense of rhythm, albeit one which dances blithely between music, speech and prose. They're natural (I know, I know). They don't pretend to be craftsmen, but don't pretend to be spontaneous either: what they do is exemplify the mind of the highly aesthetically cultured individual, stuffed with bits of finery it's not sure it needs.
The more I think about this the more it seems like an apt comparison, especially w/r/t the new Destroyer album. Trouble in Dreams could be an Ashbery title; doing an eight-minute track called "Shooting Rockets (From the Desk of Night's Ape)" shares his sense of outrageousness.
"You know, I just came across a medical article, which I know will interest you. It seems that men are not of course all male, as women are not all women. Well, the proof that men are not all male goes something like this: remove the ovaries of a female mouse. Let the gal recover. Then take a pint of male piss. Extract it with alcohol or acetone or ether or what not — I've forgotten. Do this again. Then again. Finally evaporate the stuff down until it is a thin jelly. Of this jelly take a tenth of a cubic centimeter and inject it into the muscle of said mouse. The mouse starts to menstruate!
"Now this is due to the fact that men excrete female hormones in their urine. Ain't that something. So always take a piss before or after you jerk off or you might end some day by finding yourself pregnant — with a castrated mouse perhaps.
"Anyhow this is all true."
(letter to Kenneth Burke, July 29, 1931, quoted in East, The Humane Particulars: The Collected Letters of William Carlos Williams and Kenneth Burke, 53)
"… precious space is devoted to John Updike’s 'Fellatio,' perhaps the worst poem ever written on any subject, which begins (reader, I kid you not): 'It is beautiful to think / that each of these clean secretaries / at night, to please her lover, takes / a fountain into her mouth.'"
I can give a few reasons why I think the new Stephen Malkmus and the Jicks album, Real Emotional Trash, is the best thing he's done in quite a while. (Here and elsewhere in this post, you will have to excuse obvious evidence of raging fandom.) One is pretty straightforward: Janet Weiss. Malkmus has simply never had a drummer as good as this, and she stiffens up the sinews of his famously loose music in a way it didn't know it needed. And her backup singing (I think it's her; could also be Joanna Bolme) is great too.
The backing isn't the only unusually strong aspect of Trash, though it's likely to get the most attention; in a perfect public sphere the album ought to direct some fresh attention to Malkmus as lyricist, and particularly as metrist, as well. I mean, it's no secret that the man is good with words, but at this point it's become a critical cliché to call his lyrics "casually brilliant" or "stream-of-consciousness" or "surrealist," and while these adjectives might have legitimately applied to the writer of Perfect Sound Forever or even Slanted and Enchanted, I think they tend to underplay what a craftsman Malkmus is capable of being. He gets compared to Ashbery and Wallace Stevens sometimes when critics reach for literary reference points, and fair enough, but one could make an equally strong case for Malkmus as the Thomas Hardy of rock: composer of unprecedentedly weird, sometimes fussy stanza shapes, into which he squeezes the sentiments and occasional observations of a wry, resigned Everyman. The problem is, he often shoots himself in the foot by not filling all of his schemes in all the way; such are the occupational hazards of specializing in crossword puzzle rock. Either that, or he gets bored with the patterns so quickly that he's on to some recondite variation thereof by the second verse, or second recording.
All of which obscures the fact that Malkmus is, or can be, a great lyricist, in some very traditional ways. I'm talking about the basics: singability; colloquial ease; rhyme and meter; unexpected emotional impact. His previous high water mark, to my mind, is Brighten the Corners, which is not at all the best Pavement album (it's dragged down by thin production, indifferent playing, and a little something called "Passat Dream") but may be the best collection of Pavement songs, which is to say melodies wedded to lyrics. Real Emotional Trash is his best since then (again, speaking of lyrics only). I think critics have been deceived by the proggy surface and average running time of its ten songs into believing that this is another Wowee Zoweeor Pig Lib: i.e., Malkmus in his meandering surrealist guitar-hero role. In fact, length creep has been a fact of Malkmus' oeuvre since Terror Twilight, a trend which extends to guitar solos, but the notable thing about Trash is its compositional polish: each song sounds finished to a degree that Malkmus sometimes doesn't bother to achieve. Far from being one of the weirder of Malkmus' efforts, from where I'm standing it looks like one of the most generically pigeonholeable: a good old-fashioned marriage-in-trouble record. (I have a few biographical reasons for thinking this, entirely circumstantial of course, and of course I hope untrue.) It's often noted that Malkmus is a husband and father now, but surprising that more people haven't picked up on the strange emotional overtones this gives his work, which on the surface has changed very little but which, I would argue, is beginning to deepen. Part of this is that Malkmus hasn't made the John Lennon move and given up his irony and whimsy for sincerity or sentimentality. If anything, his newfound sense of responsibility makes him sound even more distanced than ever (which may be a question of relative scale, since now we understand better what he's at a distance from). "Cold Son" and "Out of Reaches" (which really ought to be called "Out of Reaches Out") are two statements of this familial anomie; the title track (his first ever!) is another. At the risk of coming off like John Crowe Ransom writing for Spin magazine, I'd like to "read" that one carefully. (I've embedded the song at the bottom of this post. For maximum critical experience, I suggest listening along as you read.)
"Real Emotional Trash" begins in a manner similar to Pig Lib's "Water and a Seat," with a relatively simple, folky guitar riff (almost a scale) that manages to unsettle through slight variations in syncopation rather than through melodic development. Instead of veering into a spastic prog song as "Water" does, however, "Trash" stays restrained, presenting itself initially as a gentle midtempo piano ballad. (Geeky gear note: Malkmus apparently used one of Jeff Tweedy's Fender Telecasters on this song, and the wiry vulnerability of the guitar tone, as opposed to his usual fuzzy crunch, definitely lends it a special something.) The first two verses seem to be taken up with low-key worries about settling down into domestic anonymity: anxieties about becoming an abstract citizen — the kind of person who calls his wife "the wife" — beneath the abstract city sun. The words are a little mundane for Malkmus ("It's that kind of night," he sings, sounding like Billy Joel or someone) but also laced with dread: "Everybody talk, everybody listen, nobody breathe," the first of a few call backs to Pavement's classic "Stop Breathin"; "The trail has two ruts: one is just a tunnel, the other is a funnel to the tomb." The key line, though, is "Daddy's on the run," a phrase that would have been just so much sloganeering in a Pavement song, but which becomes strangely affecting now that we know the singer is in fact somebody's daddy. This is a good example of the weird games Malkmus plays with meter and their occasional affective payoffs: the original stretched out, plaintive, more or less iambic remark "Daddy's on the run," which sounds as if it were a child's observation — where are you going, Daddy? — is then sped up and run together into "Daddysontheru-uh-un," an adult's crazed blurt of irresponsible, unscannable glee: I'm on the run, bye bye kids, see you when I get back. It's two ways of looking at "Papa Was A Rolling Stone," or the theme to an indie-rock Rabbit, Run.
Then there's some dark riffing in the vein of "The Hexx" for about three minutes, leading into a simple, droning pattern that suggests the outro of, again, "Stop Breathin." At around the six minute mark the band breaks loose into a fast boogie vamp, over which SM, feeling "like a snake with five eggs stuck in my stomach" (I think this is what he's saying — a metaphor for pregnancy?), tells of some illicit-sounding hijinks in Northern California (and Mexico — see this ridiculous blog post for a chart of his progress) involving "painted ladies on house arrest." Here the lyrics get much more picaresque and concrete, full of place names and private references in the manner of Malkmus' legitimate inheritors the Fiery Furnaces, but also oblique in relation to the first two verses: is this escape something the speaker is actually accomplishing? Or just fantasizing about? Is the "you" who "spill[s] Chardonnay on your gypsy skirt" his wife, or his lover, or a member of his touring band, or what? It doesn't really matter, I guess: just the sense of release is what this section is all about. Even the obvious corniness of the choogling rhythm is earned: if making like Canned Heat is what the harried narrator of the previous verses needs to shake off his doldrums, then have at it. And if you can coin a readymade proverb like "it's the old fruit that makes wine" in the process, so much the better.
In the second half of this section the narrator seems to consider his own failure ("You got no reputation, never took a swing / Silent when they handed spines out") in a way that I have to try hard not to hear autobiographically. The repeated cry here ("Policeman!" — although the last iteration sounds more like "placement!") reminds me, and I realize I may be going way off the deep end here, of Malkmus' comments about the uninspiring Police reunion when asked about the possibility of Pavement getting back together. Of course, the "policeman" might also be "the wife," or an actual policeman putting an end to these middle-aged monkeyshines; in a live version I have from January 2007 he sings "Release him!" — which, in the context of the reading proposed above, is pretty interesting in itself.
Finally the excitement winds down, and the song ends with a resigned, piano-backed reprise of the opening figure, carried over from notes to chords now: the trash and the emotion both spent, the gamut run, the fun over, the morning after. The rest of the record (not that it's a concept album; leave that to Sufjan Stevens) suggests ways of coping with the subtle peaks and valleys of married life: here, though, there's nothing to do but run down to exhaustion and limp back home. To me, the last minute of this song is some of the most beautiful and affecting music Stephen Malkmus has recorded.
(Matador Records, if you're out there, and you'd like this MP3 to be taken down, I'm happy to oblige.)
"'The college town stood apart from the metropolis and was content to keep its distance,' said Richard's friend Robert Fitzgerald. 'Of what is sometimes meant by intellectual life — the Bohemianism of the cities and the shiver of the advanced in art and thought — of this Princeton was curious but not envious.'" (Fraser, A Mingled Yarn: The Life of R.P. Blackmur, p. 183)
So I braved the rain and made it to the Charisma conference at Columbia yesterday, and I'm very glad I did. I only saw two of the six papers, but both were pretty great. The first was Mary Poovey on "Charisma and Responsibility in the University Setting." Most of her talk was essentially rehearsing and commenting on work by two historians: William Clark's Academic Charisma and the Origins of the Research University and Ian Hunter's "Learning the Literature Lesson: The Limits of the Aesthetic Personality." The basic questions in play in Poovey's talk were these: (a) what separates the kind of knowledge gained from humanistic studies from that gained in studying the sciences; and (b) how much does teaching in the humanities depend on charisma, either of the instructor or, by virtue of affective transfer, of the author or text? She pointed out that the basic practice of English teachers is to get students to pay as close attention to a text as they would to a beloved, charismatic, but slightly inscrutable teacher, thus prolonging the magical teacher/student relationship over the course of the student's entire life. Her basic idea was that English departments are devoted to producing a "self-divided, self-defining subject" (I think this may be a quote from Hunter actually), thus "normalizing a model of subjectivity that requires endless cultivation," which is a little stark and Foucauldian for my taste but I definitely take her point. At the end of her talk she gave a couple of possible alternatives to this charisma-based pedagogical practice, but she didn't seem too excited about any of them (getting in a couple of jabs at Franco Moretti in passing), and finally broke off by saying, "I had to stop writing my paper here because it just started to seem too depressing." Maybe so, but also potentially really productive, I think: I'm going to try and see if I can think about some of these issues more with regard to my own teaching.
Also fascinating was Michael Warner's "Preachers and Publics," which put forward an argument that evangelical Christianity was one of the earliest and most successful forms of mass communication under modern public sphere conditions. The fact that evangelicals could assemble a congregation anywhere at any time, not just in a church or other consecrated space, was what allowed them to spread so effectively (and, later, to globalize). Leaving aside the content, I was super-impressed by Warner's rhetorical style and ability to present a complex argument clearly and effectively, making use of both historical evidence (including this totally amazing clip of the preacher Kathryn Kuhlman) and Habermasian critical theory, lightly worn but thoroughly absorbed and understood. He was also really poised and articulate during the Q&A session, which (typically for Columbia, it seems to me) got a little more pointed than is the norm at our genteel alma mater.
Well, anyway, you shoulda been there. (And I shoulda stayed for Eli Zaretsky and Andreas Kalyvas, probably, but I was getting hungry and was already intellectually overstimulated.) But thanks to the familiar miracle of the public blogosphere it's almost like you were there, experiencing all that academic charisma yourself, isn't it? I bet you can almost taste the free coffee.
P.S. Despite the snazzy poster image, Bill Clinton was never invoked, though there was a pretty interesting discussion in the Q&A about the quasi-evangelical rhetorical style of Barack Obama, and how it makes certain Democrats uncomfortable. Warner made the point that the element of danger — the idea that the speaker is out on the edge, saying something potentially wrong or disruptive — is a key element of the evangelist appeal, and that Obama has that right now (referencing the recent New York Times article about fears that he'll be assassinated). Surprising how rare it is for realpolitik of any kind to pop up in an academic literature conference (again, at least at Princeton). Just one more reason to wax Michael Warner's car.
Ubuweb has now posted a link to a full archive of the 1949 Western Round Table on Modern Art, at which one can view a transcript and read along to their hours of good-quality audio. I bring it up here, especially, because the debate constantly and overtly returns time and again to questions of taste and the public sphere, and especially the role of the museum and the critics as arbiters of taste in relation to abstract art. At one point Wright refers to Mondrian's work as "just monkey business." There's a rather startling exchange between Duchamp and Wright in session C, which is only partly recorded but has full (presumably full) representation in the typescript. I don't have time to say more than this right now (my prospectus defense is tomorrow morning and I've got some class planning to tinker with), but I reckon this archive might be something we all come back to, here and in our various projects. Enjoy!