On Second Thought
Harvey Milk - Courtesy and Good Will Toward Men






for better or worse, we here at Stylus, in all of our autocratic consumer-crit greed, are slaves to timeliness. A record over six months old is often discarded, deemed too old for publication, a relic in the internet age. That's why each week at Stylus, one writer takes a look at an album with the benefit of time. Whether it has been unjustly ignored, unfairly lauded, or misunderstood in some fundamental way, we aim with On Second Thought to provide a fresh look at albums that need it.

There is no depressing music. There is music that plumbs the thickest blacks of human emotion, music assembled by artists who rake themselves over gravel or set themselves on fire in an attempt to articulate their most damaging memories and confront their greatest fears. Still, there is no depressing music; for as excruciating as it is to create—perfectionism is as ruthless and as traumatic as any remembered failure—this music, this perfect expression of hopelessness and manic sadness, is nothing short of a miracle. Whether they mirror your own misery and throw a dim light upon a kindred spirit or whether they paint portraits you will never see, these dark renderings are expressions of music as high art: music that is as self-destructive as it is self-aware.

There is no depressing music. There is music that is oppressive, heavy, muddy, crushing, hypnotic, grating, masochistic, tender, lilting, lumbering, black, blue, brown, brutal, intelligent, all-encompassing, heart-stopping, forward-thinking, mind-altering, embracing, uncomfortable, debilitating, stark, whispering, bellowing, bowing, begging, brilliant, impenetrable, soulful, touching, honest, scared, naïve, wise, smiling, gasping, clutching, crying, broken, breathless, bitter and betrayed, but still, there is no depressing music. The capture of human emotion on magnetic tape is one of the greatest feats in the history of the world; it may be dark and sad, miserable and lonely, but always should it be an inspiration.

There is no depressing music. But there is Harvey Milk. The only magicians to hail from the world of down-tuned sludge, Harvey Milk channelled the spirit of Leonard Cohen while experimentally molesting the repetitive, malevolent sound of Earth. The result is some of the loudest, darkest, most emotional music ever made, not unlike the Black Heart Procession’s III as played by Lysol-era Melvins. Painfully slow and honest to the point of sadism, Courtesy and Good Will Toward Men is a paradox of the highest order: it is music that must be experienced alone—no one will want to be watched while listening to it—but it is also the last album someone should be left alone with. Harvey Milk makes music to hang yourself by; not only because it evokes the most crushing experiences we have faced or will face, but because leaving this world becomes that much easier while surrounding yourself with something this beautiful. The beauty itself may be hard to step away from, but not its scarcity.

There is no depressing music. What then is Courtesy and Good Will Toward Men? It is 70 minutes of doom-metal self-dissection crossing paths with barely audible acoustic secrets. It is “Pinnochio’s Example”, whose rickety piano, piercing guitar and sustained hums seem at first to be merely setting the stage for an uneasy listening experience, but Pinnochio’s first three minutes don’t even prepare one for the rest of the song, an additional six minutes of brutal hypnosis and unintelligible wailing that is controlled not by counting and musical mathematics, but by eye contact and intuition. This album was not written, it was felt, and its warmth, humanity and soul are overwhelming. If “Brown Water” ended after the gentle intertwining of its introduction, it would have been enough, but the song becomes a wave of undeniably melodic sludge that forces you onto your knees, looking for something to thank. It’s too much—a masterful dynamic shift that rests comfortably alongside Slint’s “Good Morning, Captain”—and then it becomes even more; the guitar solos begin and “Brown Water” becomes the Dinosaur Jr.-penned masterpiece the Swans never wrote. That level of intensity—emotional and sonic—trudges on. Whether it’s the single chord demonics and tom battering at the crux of “Plastic Eggs” and “My Broken Heart Will Never Mend”, the organic industrial percussion experiment that is “Go Back to France” or the delicate, imaginative recontextualizing of “The Lord’s Prayer” (delivered in a hoarse, broken whisper overtop a piano so wonderfully recorded you can hear the creaking of the pianist’s bench), the introduction to “Sunshine (no sun) Into the Sun” (a tender reading of the first few bars of “I Want You” by Kiss) or the acoustic, candlelight croak of Leonard Cohen’s “One Of Us Cannot Be Wrong”, Courtesy and Good Will Toward Men is fully-realized perfection. It ebbs-and-flows between monstrosity and mystery, brevity and endlessness, repetition and experimentation, but its beauty is an unwavering constant.

There is no depressing music, only music that makes you cry. One listen to one album—an album that provides nothing but joy and light and inspiration the instant your eyes have dried—is all that’s needed to illustrate the difference.


By: Clay Jarvis
Published on: 2003-09-01
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