2004 Year End Thoughts
The Sound of 2004
t’s not my favorite album of the year, but the Mountain Goats’ We Shall All Be Healed comes close. Rudimentary, percussive acoustic strums jangle as hired hands on piano, organ, violins and distorto guitar make a quiet, obtrusive racket in the background—that’s it. John Darnielle lives in a world moving faster than he can apprehend it. He’ll notice oddball details (carpenter ants in the dresser, electrical equipment), yet will admit in “Palmcorder Yajna” that it’s impossible to guess “what these cryptic signals mean.”
This to me was the sound of 2004. Something in the air and you don’t know what it is. Although I admit that it’s the business of a writer to posit ideas of order, there were too many details—too many sides, too many issues—to consider, and these cryptic signals kept becoming more cryptic as December approached. A putative culture war, an election that got the wrong guy elected for the right reasons, a real-life war fought for the right reasons with the wrong means – I mean, what the hell? I’ll leave the generalizations to cable TV pundits. When the confetti has fallen and 2004 rung out by new New Year commissar Regis Philbin the events will seem like noise, howling and insistent, but distracting, still there, like Darnielle’s background racket.
I suspect this collective drift explains why Modest Mouse’s “Float On” struck a nerve with so many listeners, even those for whom the sight of a yelping Isaac Brock with a fake bushy moustache was as unexplainable yet right as catching a fleeting glimpse of Pere Ubu’s David Thomas with his own bushy mustache on “Classic VH-1.” Not many noticed that Brock’s strangled exhortations and the insistent bounce of the music undercut the song’s cheerful defeatism; in essence it’s “Don’t Worry Be Happy” as recorded by Talking Heads. “Take Me Out” was at least more upfront about its intentions: good old-fashioned escapism, Duran Duran and Gang of Four making out in front of everyone on the dance floor, all sweaty hands and sticky lips (the subject of Franz Ferdinand’s other, better single). Even more disturbing was the Prince of Musicology—an excellent album, yes (finally!), but whose nostalgia for what music can do “back in the day” an explicit acknowledgment from its creator that his old Earth Wind & Fire records are abler bulwarks against the Big Bad World than the gender/media manipulation tricks he used to awe us with, um, back in the day. This isn’t just drift: it’s retreat.
Turning lyrics into signifiers of a dread too vague to articulate is a device as old as the hills, and the Bob Dylan of Chronicles has been listening to these murmurs for more than forty years. When we listen, drawing breaths, as the liquor store clerk in Darnielle’s “Against Pollution” admits to shooting someone in the face, we hear not just ourselves in the character’s plainspoken deadpan—the shooting is shocking because it just happens, even when he halfheartedly admits at the end that the guy tried to kill him—but we also project the gnomic parts of our lives that are dangerous when called to action. We hear echoes: Wire’s “Kidney Bingoes,” Springsteen’s Nebraska, “Last Kiss,” of Dylan’s version of the murder ballad “Stack A Lee” especially. The mythical land of songs like “Stack A Lee,” he writes, is populated “with more archaic principles and values; one where actions and virtues were old style and judgmental things came falling out on their heads.”
An apt description of the stereotypical red-state resident? Perhaps. But aren’t we all? In “Palmcorder Yajna” and “Against Pollution,” Darnielle’s matter-of-fact acceptance of bad-moon-rising is more chilling than Brock’s winning vulgarity, which is why Darnielle ultimately made the better record. But both Darnielle and Brock are a helluva lot smarter than the stereotypical blue-state resident: Brock at least isn’t afraid to look like a cornball. “Ready for the world about to come,” Darnielle speak-sings in “Slow West Vultures,” his voice betraying a slight tremble when it hits that last syllable. That’s where I’m at right now, where we all are.