Quiet is the New Loud

Spiritualized's noisy bombast vs. Pan American's soft sound

If you're yawning through your years, you aren't paying attention. As life rolls along, you learn more about the complexities of your body: the strange synaptic frequencies of the brain, the eyes that move themselves around in their sockets at night. You learn how the universe works: chaos, relativity, the gradual bloating of space. You ponder the cosmic significance of the fact that Mandy Moore and Jessica Simpson both became brunettes in the same week. There are important thoughts to be thunk. You have no excuse to be bored.

Unless, of course, you happen to be a certain rock star. In which case, thinking about such things probably makes you sleepy. So you just stick to taking drugs. Or, on your more productive days, taking drugs to write songs to take drugs to. Just look at Spiritualized: In the past few years, frontman Jason Pierce (a.k.a. J Spaceman) has started to steer his career toward such do-nothing-ness. Before the release of the group's most recent effort, 2001's Let it Come Down (Arista), the Spaceman had not recorded a single full-length studio album since 1997's gorgeous sprawl Ladies and Gentlemen We Are Floating in Space. And judging by the many interviews that Pierce has conducted about this latest release, he's spent these past few years doing little more than recording and getting high. (Huh? You mean the guy who once packaged his album in what looked like a pharmaceutical pillbox did not spend that time teaching himself to knit?)

Not surprisingly, Let it Come Down exploits material similar to that of its predecessor: the same subjects (shooting up, quitting, shooting up again); the same sounds (strings, layered with more strings); and even the same song (the album ends with a version of "Lord Can You Hear Me," a track from Pierce's former--and far superior--band Spacemen 3). You question whether the album's single "Do it All Over Again" is meant to be ironic. Then you wonder if the rumor that Let it Come Down was originally supposed to be titled Don't Just Do Something. Sit There is profoundly funny or just sad. (Dude, it depends how high you are: My very stoned friends and I once laughed hysterically while reciting lines from Waiting for Godot. "But the characters don't do anything!" we giggled. This from a group of girls who had been reading the same page for the past five hours.)

Ladies and gentlemen, I'm bloating in space: Jason Pierce
Kevin Westenberg
Ladies and gentlemen, I'm bloating in space: Jason Pierce

Boredom is a luxury. It's what happens to musicians who have developed a tolerance for their excesses and end up striving for even bigger and more tedious indulgences. (It's probably also what once drove Spiritualized to match their ornate sound with an equally over-the-top concert venue: Toronto's 1,800-foot-high CN Tower. Cue ridiculous Wagner soundtrack.) Revisiting Let it Come Down on the eve of this coming Wednesday's Spiritualized performance at First Avenue, I still find that the album is a testament to the worst kind of bombast. More than 100 musicians contribute to its score, each song builds to an extended climax, and the lofty lyrics go so far as to quote Nobel Prize-winning astrophysicist Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar. (Although Chandrasekhar's line "Let's see how high we can fly before the sun melts the wax in our wings" is not exactly used here as a metaphor for scientific knowledge.)

Even worse, Spiritualized's melodrama completely desensitizes the listener. By the end of the album, you're completely immune to any sonic nuance. In fact, when "Lord Can You Hear Me" finally heaves to its close after ten full minutes, you can hardly hear Pierce's religious awakening from beneath the band's countless orchestral exclamation points. And by this point, does it even matter? God is probably deaf. And now I'm bored.

 

With bands like Spiritualized around, it's easy to forget that some songs can be infinite in their minutiae. In the 1999 music documentary Modulations, Future Shock author Alvin Toffler notes that much of the industrial revolution, whose sounds helped develop electronic music, relied upon Cartesian problem solving: Both sonically and philosophically, we break things down into smaller sections in order to understand them. The only problem, he observes, is that once we dismantle something, we lose interest in reassembling it. I would argue that the "problem" is not so problematic: We don't need a holistic sound or the readily identifiable emotions it causes. Who wants to be poked in the ear with something big and solid? Haven't we all suffered enough from that aural sex scene in Scary Movie?

In any case, many artists could learn a great deal from electronic musician Pan American, whose The River Made No Sound (Kranky) is an abstract, largely beatless sonic challenge--almost violently minimalist. The album is a pointillist Rorschach test, a psychological exercise in anticipation: You hear a sort of dripping, some keyboard tinklings, a noise like scissors slicing. Then there's just a keyboard again, and you have to wait patiently for the next noise to set in. When it does, your every Corti filament is attuned to that sound. Sure, you'll probably hear it again about 50 more times in the next few minutes, but now your ears are concentrating. And that's when everything around you starts to sound so lovely--and so loud.

Pan American is a perfect rebuttal to Toffler's argument. It's a celebration of fragmentation. The half-thoughts, unidentifiable emotions, and inexplicable reactions to music--that's experience. And the way we make peace with the pieces--that's art.

 
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