Archive | January, 2013

5 Things

31 Jan

1.  Fran Lebowitz–I can’t get enough of this woman!  From her suit-coated style, to her caustic barbs.  She is a writer, but she’s probably much more famous for her college tours, answering questions with her wit.  I love anybody who can talk like that.  Here’s a quote by her “he was audibly tan.”  See?

2.  Star Trek: The Next Generation–Oh my god, I have fallen into full fledged nerd-dom, but I LOVE Star Trek right now.    People having fast forward babies! Eighties hair in space!  Robots pretending they’re Sherlock Holmes!  Whoopi Goldberg!  What’s not to love?

3.  Seeing the trees on my way home from work every day.  Right now it’s just twilight on my way home, so these trees look like modernist sculptures, all hulking and twisted.  I think trees are much more interesting with their leaves off–some look menacing, some look shocked to be naked, some look tiny and nimble, some look surprisingly puny like wet cats.

4.  Liquorice pastilles–I don’t know they just fit winter.  Don’t ask me more than that.

5.  Agatha Christie–This is the season where I like things cozy and comfortable, and nobody like Agatha Christie to give that.  Her books have a pleasant sort of old fashionedness about them.

Poetry Review, Wallace Stevens, The Plain Sense of Things

30 Jan

“After the leaves have fallen, we return/to a plain sense of things.”  So we’re talking about winter, which also means the end of life.   This plain sense is explained through the poem, but here he means simple sensation without thought, sort of like what a baby must feel like.  To most people any thing or experience is loaded with preconceptions and thoughts making this giant web of meaning.  To a baby, at least as far as we can imagine, this does not exist, because that kind of thinking is comparative, and babies have very little to compare stuff to.  Maybe that’s why we have language in the first place, in order to compare stuff we need words to do it.  Anyway, Stevens is comparing the end of life to that of being an infant.

“It is as if/we had come to an end of the imagination, inanimate in an inert savoir.”  By using the “we” Stevens invites us to share his experience with him.  An end of the imagination makes me think of the feeling one gets towards the end of a movie we’ve been sucked into, where the credits are  playing and people are starting to straggle out.  What I find interesting is that while current pop psychology focuses on having people free themselves from their preconceptions and thus interact with reality in a more substantial way, Stevens rejects this, seeing reality without imagination is being “inanimate in an inert savoir.”  In other words frozen in knowledge.  Stevens sees reality like a pack of cards, without imagination they are just a bunch of pieces of paper with symbols and numbers on them, it takes our imagination to turn them into a game.

We start the next stanza with “It is difficult even to choose the adjective/for this blank cold, this sadness without cause.”  World-weariness, despair.  Adjectives imply imagination, which he has run out of.  I can’t tell if Stevens feels as if he’s run out of a lifetime of imagination, or the effort to bring imagination about, perhaps both.  What’s interesting is that he seems to have no imagination because he knows too much, has experienced too much.

He brings us to a metaphor of a house.  “The great structure has become a minor house./No turban walks across the lessened floors.”  So for the speaker, imagination has to do with having plans, this place he had such great ideas for, that was supposed to be a palace, is just a small house…

“The greenhouse never so badly needed paint./The chimney is 50 years old and slants to one side.”   …a small house that is falling apart and won’t be around too much longer without more effort.  It would be very hard to reinvest in a hovel that was supposed to be a palace.   He’s not talking about his house here, he’s talking about his “house.”  It used to be that the sum of a person’s success would be in the house they built, that’s why people still boast that they own a house that their grandfather made out of his own two hands, that sort of thing, it’s human effort making something.  However, this poet’s house is shabby and doesn’t live up to the expectation of it.

“A fantastic effort has failed, a repetition/in a repetitiousness of men and flies.”    A fly is very much the lowest form of life, or at least, the one which is hardest for a human to find much in common with.  Flies have very short lives, seem like little robots, and breed like crazy.  They only have a few actions they perform over and over again.  I can see why flies would be seen as a repetitious creature.  Also if an old fly leaves a room, but a new one enters, it’s not like there’s much to distinguish one from another.  Add onto that with the associations one has with flies and refuse, and rot, this shows the dark place where Stevens is.

“Yet the absence of the imagination had/itself to be imagined.”  Here Stevens is reasoning himself away from despair.  It’s a sort of weird turnaround on the “I think therefore I am” Descartes idea–feeling the loss of imagination means that imagination is there.    We move from a house to “A great pond/the plain sense of it, without reflections, leaves, mud, water like dirty glass, expressing silence”  This is a less destructive image–a pond is not something which has total control over itself (while a house is a completely controlled environment.)  There’s no implicit fault at a pond being muddy.  This reminds me too, of how ponds in movies are always blue and beautiful, and in real life they are more often giant mud puddles.    His point with “the plain sense of it” is that this is looking at a pond, in shiny reflective surfaces we see nothing but the reflections.  Here’s an acknowledgement that his previous imagination, as pleasurable as it was, was not looking at things as they were, this silence would be filled by his own noise.

“Expressing silence/of a sort, silence of a rat come out to see, the great pond and its waste of the lilies”  Instead of flies, a rat, not the pleasantest of creatures, but at least a mammal, and one which instead of going through meaningless actions is contemplating the pond.  The waste of lilies is like the house but different, in a pond, the lilies live for a season, and die, but it’s part of the natural progression.  Again, he’s talking about the fruits of his life, but lilies are more like beautiful things that eventually fade and die, but again it’s better than a damaged house.

“All this/had to be imagined as an inevitable knowledge/required, as a necessity requires.”  Again, Stevens finds proof of his imagination.  It’s funny how this line cuts both ways.  Stevens is desperately grasping for imagination as the thing which gives life meaning, so the image of the pond had to be imagined as inevitable knowledge–keep in mind he’s not saying that there’s any intrinsic knowledge in looking at the pond, he’s having to imagine it’s there–he might not be looking at things as they are (actually I think he’s desperately hoping he’s not, because there’s a profound lack of meaning in this place).  The trick he’s making is through all these little paradoxes is he eventually comes to the point that either he is seeing things as they are, meaningless, empty, plain, and this was the message he was meant to see, or he’s imagining this, and therefore his imagination is still there, and there’s hope.  He’s cleverly changing the experience of despair into a weird win-win game in his head.

Why is it that I don’t feel like he feels any better for it?  It’s like he won on paper, but it doesn’t mean anything either.  What he won is a will to live, at least for now, but what I find really disturbing is the idea that there will be a time where he won’t win anymore, that his imagination will truly be gone and he can’t think himself out of this feeling.  Then what?    That’s why I find this poem to be incredibly brave.  It’s one thing to choose life when you’re young and you have all this time ahead of you where things can change, but towards the end of life I would think it would be harder, the chances for change, for something new, get slimmer and require more effort.  In a way that’s the plain sense of things too–being older is not a time where you have made it and you can rest on your laurels, being older is more of a time where you are running out of things to do.  That’s the tragedy that can exist in every life.

****Note, apparently I wanted Wallace Stevens to be a poncy English schoolboy and spelled his last name StePHans rather than Stevens.  I would like to imagine it was Steven’s poetry that sent me into such wild free-style spelling spree,

Art Review, Philip Guston, Painting Smoking Eating

28 Jan

I love Philip Guston.  Well, I don’t know so much about the man, but I sure love his art.  He has a large sense of playfulness, and much of his work looks more like illustration (in the best way) than painting.  He reminds me of those New Yorker cartoons, except his are really funny and are a hoot.

Painting Smoking Eating seems to be a favorite things painting.  We have a man in bed smoking a cigarette, with a plate of sandwiches on his chest, and a pile of shoes and some paints in the background as well as a lightbulb.  The whole thing is done mostly in roses and reds giving it a soft air.   (Keep in mind one thing Philip Guston loved painting was shoes, which when you look at his art you’ll be why of COURSE he would love shoes, he loves anything odd, and shoes are definitely odd if you think about them.)

There’s a definite coziness in this painting, as if he’s shut himself off from the world and as long as these things continue he would happily go on forever.  Naturally this won’t last for awhile, but I wonder if he was a forager, the sort of person who hides away as long as he has his needs met and goes out when he needs to get something.  Nothing wrong with that, I have the same thing.  In fact I can see this as an homage to interverted happiness, which is not the same thing at all as extroverted happiness.

Introverted happiness has to do with a pile of books on a rainy day spent in pajamas, or listening to music and drawing for hours, or watching documentaries.  Introverts don’t seek out others because they like their own company well enough.  Projects.  Just thinking.  Walks.  That sort of thing.  Introversion is a lovely state of experience that is small and quiet and perceptive.  Drinking things in.

That’s why I think this painting is lovely, it perfectly shows that sort of peaceful state where everything is provided and you don’t need the world today.  I love those days.

Albums Worth Listening to: Electric Light Orchestra, New World Record

27 Jan

This was an album that was huge at the time (1976) that I don’t hear many people talking about anymore.  Pity really, because this album is one of the prime examples of where an album is more than the sum of the songs that make it up.  I can imagine this album wandering through the outer fringes of space, wandering across the radio ether, and somehow making sense.    It just sounds like something transmitted from a satellite.

We start out with Tightrope–A symphonic theme (that continues on and off through the whole record) introduces a sort of mid-tempo tune about falling off a tightrope and wanting someone to through him down a line.  The tune being interrupted at several points by the orchestra making sounds like toppling off a tightrope.  He says he’s saved at the end.

Then we segue into Telephone Line, a song that deserves the title “prettiest song this side of heaven.”  Lynne’s voice sounds pure, and the symphony arpeggios behind him giving the impression of a night full of stars, and the soft crooning of “oh oh Telephone line, give me some time, I’m living in twilight” just floating over it all, like someone who has just learned how to fly.

“Rockaria” sounds pretty stupid, teaching an opera singer how to rock n roll, but it somehow fits into the space jukebox theme we’ve wandered around, a blues song with an opera singer and an orchestra behind it.   Lynn has a good time with it, and he gives a knowing wink to the audience, it’s kind of like a Doctor Who episode that’s set in the past, the cheesiness is somehow part of it so it’s not a problem.

We end the first half with Mission (A New World Record).  A space song that starts with the sounds of ambulances–basically an alien has been sent to earth to watch things.  “On a dirty worn-out sidewalk, sits a mother with a baby, In her vale of tears she sees no rainbow and someone’s singing from a window In the mission of the sacred heart.”  Considering that this is the title track, it kind of explains the sad atmosphere, beautiful moodiness, and emphasis on space and the sky through this whole album.

“So Fine” opens up the next bit, a sort of Beach Boys influenced happy romp of a song–the singer talking about how he wants things, a well done light-weight pop song, until in the middle we get this bridge which sounds like a microwave oven playing the maracas that builds up into a dance beat.    Idealism just jumps out of this song with its ooh-la las and woo!  Then the song fades like a slowing handcranked record player.

“Livin’ Thing”  A sort of gypsy violin introduces this one.  Lynn sings about being in love, but also how he’s taking a dive, and soon the song focuses more on the dive than the love.  (It’s interesting how the back up singers at times seem to be commenting on this “don’t you do it, don’t you do it.” )  The theme of climbing high and inevitably falling comes to a peak here.  It’s funny how in this album things seem happy, but sad behind it, or sad but beautiful.

“Above the Clouds” More climbing themed lyrics to a sort of space doo-wop with a vibratophone.  This song is extremely short,but the lyrics   “It’s like a mountain side, You’ve got to climb it to the top, Floating in a sea of dreams, The only thing that you can see, Is the view above the clouds.”  There’s a struggle with finding significance after getting some of the things you want.  It’s the difference between being really young and having nothing yet but the future, and a little older and having some stuff and losing the purity of your vision.

“Do Ya” is the hardest rocking song here.  Basically talking to a woman about how he’s seen everything but she is the best thing he’s ever seen.  It’s funny how this song feels a little tacked on in a way, sort of like how Lynne couldn’t really make a song about the struggle in finding significance and not have the answer being love from some woman.  I believe that tacked on bit is on purpose, because this is basically a blind alley for him.

“Shangri-La”  Follow up “Do Ya” and closes the album with a sort of symphonic lullaby, about how love has gone away.   He talks about getting out of love and waiting again for something to give meaning.  It’s not completely sad, but just another set of emotions that drift away as quickly as they started.

We return to the symphonic theme at the beginning with Jeff Lynne’s voice sort of echoing underneath the symphony and choir saying he will return to “Shangri-La.”    It really sounds like he is getting lost in all the noise around him.

What makes this album really pop besides the incredible production, is how tight it is in every way.  All the songs are really short, the symphonic bits are alluded throughout the whole album (and seem to represent the greater cosmos, and how small an individual can be it.)  Themes come back again and again both in sound and in lyrics: the line–being both a connection with others, and also a distancing mechanism, climbing and falling, sort of like icarus, not being able to see.  The tone is one of longing, but the sort of longing for something different, something to give some purpose, it’s the sort of longing a person could have if they first had a goal to succeed at something, but succeeding isn’t enough anymore.  Also of waiting, as if this album was made when Jeff Lynn was waiting for something to capture his interest.

Honestly, I could listen to this cycle on loop (and I really hate the expanded editions of the album that don’t let you do this).  I have yet to find a more perfect peon to disenchantment and yearning, and in my opinion E.L.O. never topped themselves after this album.

Pop Culture Friday–Justin Timberlake is too classy edition

25 Jan

1.  Justin Timberlake–Suit and Tie–Why does this song remind me so much of the early 90’s?  Probably because it is retroing back to the early ’90’s which in itself retroed back to the fifties and sixties.  Basically this is a neo white-soul song about dressing up.  The whole song is very breezy, the lyrics just kind of wander from one topic to the other, and it’s a harmless piece of pop.  It’s an incredibly forgettable piece of pop, other than trying to sound very sophisticated, the tune flies right out of my head right after the song is over.  I watched the video which also is all about sophistication and classic style–but I don’t necessarily mean it in the best sense.  I don’t mind it when people look back, it would just be nice if this was something a little more artistically brave, rather than a willful throwback.    I don’t know, it just sounds like a song that the kids from A Different World would be dancing to.

2.  Hopeless by Colleen Hoover–I tried looking up this book but the fans are absolutely insane.  It sounds like a sort of young adult 50 shades of grey.  Why I would want to read such a thing is beyond me, but then again I never really got into romance anyway (and really, these books are just romances on steroids.)  Keep in mind a huge amount of media is simply wish-fulfillment, and when you aren’t the audience whose wishes it’s trying to fulfill, it’s quite an odd thing.

3.   Mama–This is a very giallo looking movie, creepy kids, spectral avenging mother.  One thing I find odd is how horror movies seem to be stuck in 60’s era psychology, so the fears are all of parents, and of becoming more like an animal rather than the true things people fear nowadays.  Actually it’s also a throwback to Victorian fears, who felt like society was the one thing that kept us from eating each other’s faces off or something.  The funny thing is that the real trigger to people acting beastly is usually simple stress, the very kind that surrounds any life anywhere whether in the wilderness or in the city.  Amp the stress up and some people snap, calm it down and there’s a less likely chance of it.

Art Review Dumitro Gorzo, Reality’s Nostalgia

24 Jan

I find this painting interesting in looks and in name.  To me nostalgia and reality are opposites, but then again because they are both just concepts in the first place, I guess they could be defined in any way.

This painting has a row of boys wearing bishop’s hats, blindfolded, with exaggerated boot-like legs.  Instead of hands they all have red blobs.  They’re in a row like so many old photographs have people.    If the image hadn’t been altered, it certainly would be a nostalgic photo.  However, the alterations distance the viewer.  Instead of nostalgia we see things that remind us of it, the blindfolds, the hats, the sort of mental altering of past events that constitute nostalgia.

And isn’t post-modernism the same?  A sort of ironic nostalgia, purposely altering things from the past to distance them?  For instance in emphasizing the big awkward feet of the children, indicating the sort of awkwardness that everyone has in older childhood, the blindfolds, the hats, like a photo that’s been purposely vandalized.  After all, even if we’re looking ironically, we’re still looking backward.

That’s the nostalgia trap, the trap that none of us completely escape, yearning for an unavailable mythical past.  After all, we only deface things we have some sort of connection to, and a painting like this just strengthens that connection.  Is there any way to truly look at the past with clear eyes as it was, once it has been relegated to photos and stories?  Aren’t we all blind?

Poetry Review, Walt Whitman, Hours Continuing Long

23 Jan

The pain of a broken heart is a very difficult thing.  It bends time with its longing, but in the same moment, the rest of the world moves on, happily ignorant to what (to you) feels like the loss of a whole universe.  Whitman is incredibly difficult to talk about because his poetry is so direct.  No abstract symbols here, he lays it all out painful and protracted, leaving the reader the chance to drink it in, or to let it drift by.

So he’s counting hours after a lover has deserted him.  “Long, sore, and heavy-hearted.”  Just the passing of time is a painful event, because you’re accruing time separated.  He spends his time in “lonesome and unfrequented” spots with his head in his hands.  Or at night walking the streets, stifling cries.  Each line starts with the word hours, like he’s gotten more with each step, the hours ticked off in a way only an insomniac can think of them.

Hours spent discouraged and distracted, because he misses his lover and his lover has moved on.  Suffering, and feeling ashamed of that suffering.  The shame comes from many things, from allowing these feelings to distract him, for continuing to feel the way he does despite the fact that it won’t get him what he wants, and shame because it’s for a man.   He asks if others feel the same as him.  Of course others do, but the list of questions at the end of this poem make me think that Whitman had nobody to share these feelings with.  He still harbors the relationship in the way a house could harbor a spy.

I bet you people passing Whitman at this time had no idea how he was feeling.  That is the thing that makes these feelings stronger, because they are secret.  Pain is so much worse when you have to hide it.

The last question is what the lover thinks, “Does he see himself reflected in me?  In these hours, does he see the face of his hours reflected?”  An interesting statement, because the hours that they were a couple are not “his hours” but the hours of pain following.  Makes sense, because I suppose that Whitman wouldn’t be wandering around the city dejected left to his own devices, and heartbreak feels like the other has moved through you and took pieces away.  It’s the most dejected form of grief, made worse because Whitman apparently sees his ex from time to time.

Do you know the oddest thing about heartbreak?  Years later, looking back at this, yes, you will remember the feeling, but the time spent will be one as a dream, when the person who held all your attention becomes a stranger.  It’s so strange, like remembering being sick.

Movies From 2011 Part 1

21 Jan

Ok, today I’m writing down a list of Movies from 2011 I’d like to watch.  Why 2011 and not 2012, you might ask?   Well, 2012 still has the smell of zeitgeist about it–the problem with zeitgeist is that it has a tendency to make movies that are prescient seem better than they are.  Everybody knows that the movies people watch at the time often lose their magic, while others that are left virtually ignored gain power over time.  2011 may yet be a little soon to get away from the zeitgeist smell, but it’s better than last year at any rate.  So here we go!

1.  Phil Ochs–But there for Fortune–Because I like documentaries about musicians.  This may or may not be all that good–after all, this is a legacy making movie essentially trying to prove that Ochs is still relevant, but I’m willing to give it a shot.

2.  The Time that Remains–Interesting French comedy about the Palestinian issue.  Cinematography looks interesting, and the humor looks gentle.

3.  A Somewhat Gentle Man–A Swedish comedy about a man getting out of prison (what is up with 2011 having comedies about grim topics, weird!).  Normally the gritty look would turn me off, but the word of mouth is promising on this one.

4.  Barney’s Version–Ok, so this looks a little bit sappy, but the acting looks good enough to carry it through.

5.  The Way Back–Because I like a good escape epic, and Ed Harris is always good.

6.  Dhobi Ghat–I can like Indian cinema when there’s a voice behind it.  I have no idea if this is good or not, but it looks interesting which is a good start.

7.  Biutiful–I have to wait until I’m ready to watch a painful movie, but it looks breathtaking.

8.  Putty Hill–Another painful movie about dehumanization, this will be on a thinky day.

9.  Public Speaking–Because I love Fran Liebowitz

10.  Of Gods and Men–a tragic poem about religion and tolerance.  A very serious watch that feels necessary.

11.  Heartbeats–because it’s so incredibly stylish.  I’m not expecting substance here.

Book Review, Martin Seligman, Flourish

20 Jan

Something about Flourish just screams “I am making my legacy” in big letters.  While some of the ideas here are interesting, Flourish ends up being a testimony of Seligman’s career more than a real step forward in positive psychology per se.  As such, I have reservations about suggesting it as any sort of self-help book, but it’s interesting if a little sprawly.

I think the book can’t decide whether it wants to be a theoretical book, a study, or a biography so through all of Flourish I found myself wandering from paragraph to paragraph wandering from subject to subject.  It’s a little like hanging out with your friendly ex-professor grandfather–he’s not going to just lecture you, but wander into some stories, and bring up family stories to boot.  It’s kind of charming in its own way, but at times it really taxes the patience (Seligman really likes bridge and can discuss that forever I feel like, and his professional history sometimes butts in like having a flashback in the middle of a Nova special).

As for his Flourish theories, they’re so broad sometimes I wonder if they’re really providing tools at all.  He has some specifics: keep a gratitude journal, think about your strengths and how to apply them, express sympathetic joy, things like that.   While they are wonderful bits of advice, I don’t see how ordering them and creating a test around them constitutes a new theory.  It lacks the meat somehow.  Also, while I feel some parts focus on areas that positive psychology generally didn’t touch before, it seems like this is mining similar territory as The Happiness Project–valid ways to make healthy people live richer lives, and also ways to sort of prevent mental instability later, but I question their qualifications in dealing with people who have serious mental diseases.  I mean, how is his method anything different than a more systemized version of Oprah magazine?

Also, when is this sort of well-being psychology moving into the realm of magical thinking?  Must we always be happy and content, or trying to be happy and content?  Isn’t there some use for discontentedness?  Must everything be sunshine and no shadow?  I’m not always certain that Seligman’s view of what a healthy human looks like is the same that I would have it be.  Happy but maybe a little bit bland.

At the same time I applaud a serious psychiatrist focusing on applicable science rather than making more theories as to how people act the way they do.   Though his sense of what a healthy human is gives me pause sometimes, I appreciate that he is trying to define that rather than focusing on the ways we are broken or malfunctioning.   He certainly has qualifications to boot, and he does speak about using his model in many different environments.  Also, and I must stress this, he seems like someone who is happy and well adjusted himself.

All-in-all, I think the book is ok.  If you want some new ideas to think over, I think there’s more edgy stuff out there, but Seligman has some very good points, and honestly isn’t out to chart new territory anyway.

Albums Worth Listening To. Daniel Amos, Motorcycle

19 Jan

Ok, so I’m starting out my albums list with a (*GASP*) Christian album.  Ok, before you close this blog forever and seek out a Pixies album or something, just give me a listen.

Daniel Amos is not Christian contemporary in the way you know it.  In fact, if I was running a record store in 1994 I wouldn’t put it in the Christian section at all–they simply don’t sit well next to Amy Grant or Petra or whoever else.  Unlike those bands, Daniel Amos is almost completely uninterested in preaching, or changing your beliefs at all.  Nor are they a worship band.    What we get here is an extremely smart, extremely brainy band wishing to express their philosophical beliefs.  (OOOOH that sounds worse.  You’ve gotta understand how GOOD this band is to be able to say this.)  Also Daniel Amos is pretty critical of mainstream religion for its exclusivity and closed communities.

Motorcycle is influenced by late 60’s psychedelia fed through 90’s production.  You’ve got mellotrons and shiny beach boys melodies and sound effects making a sort of dense fever dream influence by Dante, C.S. Lewis, and Frederick Buechner.  Their language is dense with a lot of word play, moving from Dylanesque rants to Lewis Carroll poetry to Haiku-like beauty.

So we open to the sounds of horses hooves and a harp:

Theirs is not a world where if you just love God hard enough life will be wonderful.  Take the first song “The Banquet at the World’s End.”  It’s an invitation to the end of the world basically, but the song, as happy (almost loony) it sounds has a bunch of people who are severely damaged being the ones who are left.  “The bride and the groom dance on club foot lane at the banquet at the world’s end.”  Yes, the idea is that Christ has come back and the meek inherited the earth, but the meek are really the meek, the ones who society has completely turned its back on.   Naturally the rich and “high class” choose not to attend.   Also, while this is a song of celebration, this is the beginning of an album that questions the idea that simple salvation, like joining a club, will solve anything.   The tune itself is very Pet Sounds.

We next follow “Traps Ensnares” starting with a verse “and He committed Himself to no man because  He knew what was in the heart of man.” It’s a quote from John, where Jesus is at the height of his popularity just before the crucifixion, and he did not trust public opinion because it is unstable (very smart.)  The song becomes a stream of consciousness litany of harms people can do upon each other over a singing choir.  Then stops quite abruptly.

Our next stop in this mystery tour would be “Hole in the World.”  An apocalyptic landscape with broken glass and lace curtains where everyone believes in god.   It ends with the singer crucifying God, and laying in the dark with broken legs waiting for a hand in the dark.  See what I mean by not being praise music?  To Daniel Amos God is not just in joy, but also pain, and spirituality is not a simple a to b progression.    The tune reminds me of the intro to “Gimme Shelter” for whatever reason.

“What’s come over me” is the weakest song on the first half (though probably the one most people would have liked the most at the time.)  I find it to be a sort of head-bobby I love God and God’s world song that’s a little simple compared to all that’s come before it.  (Although it’s interesting here that they say that God is not just in beauty but also in estrangement and in failure and pain and struggle.)  I guess after a beginning, I find this song to be an interruption to the theme of spiritual complexity, defamiliarization, and struggling with reductive reasoning.

Then we get “Buffalo Hills” a song about a little league baseball game, but through alien eyes.  The song is absolutely haunting in lyrical intensity:

Snap shot, visible sign
Spirit moving, bending the grasses
Runs free down the chalkline
Child of Wonder
Long legs.  Lashes.

The whole song is like that lyrically, sung with dreamlike clarity and a sun-drenched somewhat menacing guitar hook in the back.  At the peak of the song they break into what I can only describe as a Beach Boys influenced chant that is perfectly surprising, perfectly beautiful.

Finally we end the first part with “Guilty” a song asking a woman for forgiveness and wanting to be taken back.  Though he wants her to absolve him as well, which is a bit much to ask some woman to do.  This song suffers the most from sounding like the early nineties, very grungy, not bad, it builds up to continued pleadings that rises to a scream.

The second half begins with “Motorcycle” a Penny Lane sounding piece with riding a Motorcyle is a metaphor for life (and the idea that we might crash at any time.)  “We’re heading for the very same dead-end, stop-lights and crash sights and meeting again.”    There’s a sense of recklessness here (with all the near crashes and moving fast and such), but they’re going places.

We now go into Abby Road territory with several songlets hooked together–“Wonderful” a Lullaby celebrating the beauty of nighttime, and simple beauty.  We segue into the song “So Long” which is just a pleasant instrumental piece with so long sung over certain parts.  Short but pleasant.

Then we go to “My Frontier” which sounds like we’re at the gates of Dante’s hell.  There’s screams in the background and the singer talks about a place “where would be believers beat ploughshares to spears”  and he wants the sun to go down and kick the world apart.  Here, the frontier seems to be the place of strong emotions and threat.  The pain is at a peak, and hope seems to be running low.

“Grace is the Smell of Rain”  The best song on the album, and that’s saying a lot.  After the pain in the last song, we get to a more realistic view of heaven on earth than the Banquet.  The people in this song are just as damaged, but healing because the rain falls upon everyone.

 There’s old sleep in our eyes
and deep thorns in our sides
but old dogs learn new tricks
when the rain is falling
By the bottomless lagoon
a drunkard’s dancing in the moonlight

The song breaks into a sort of frenzied jam that ends up chanting “Motorcycle” reminding us of the theme.  The next song “Noelle” I read in the notes is by the lead singer’s daughter.  It’s basically building an ideal world free from harm for her.  “And I’ve prayed her into a dream where it all turns out quite well and the weather’s fine and the church bells chime Noelle, Noelle, Noelle.”  The thing is he knows this is a dream…

…unlike in “Wise Acres” which is basically against the modern church being so closed off and rewriting history to fit in with their exclusive surroundings.  Change scares them, as do differences, so they condition people to survive there and only there.  We end covered up in a layer of fuzz guitars and distortion.

Finally we get to the song “So Long Again” which is the point in the album where Alice wakes up (if we were to use a Wonderland theme.)   The imagery is hopeful and bright (an angel laughed beneath a weeping willow).  Then falls into a very gentle version of Motorcycle ending with “might not even be remembered on a motorcycle” fading into chimes and bright sounds.

Let me tell you, this album is one of the best of any kind, so tightly built and so honest in its feelings, I highly recommend it whatever you believe in (or don’t).  This is not a Christian album, it’s a human about universal human struggle with darkness and pain, and the little things that lighten our loads on the way, set in a dreamscape that will hover for days.  But listen to the whole album, the sum is MUCH greater than its parts here, and there’s no way to appreciate this piecemeal.