The Emperor's New Groove
Like most fans of the rock orchestra Godspeed You! Black Emperor, I loved the name before hearing anything else. It's funny and jovial yet somehow manages to pack the weighty words god, emperor, speed, black, and you into as many syllables as it takes to say KC & the Sunshine Band. The fact that the exclamation point moved leftward last year (it previously sat at the end) is hilarious, too. But even that formalist gag might contain solemn meaning--a move to the political left, maybe?
The 10-piece band, whom the Walker brings to First Avenue March 19, invites this sort of blah-biddy-blah analysis in part because it's so mysterious. A rumored collective of radical squatters living in a Montreal train yard, they seem wary of the media (though the rare interview will reveal that their name, in fact, was lifted from a Mitsuo Yanagimachi documentary about motorcycle gangs). Onstage the musicians treat the audience as they would a one-way mirror in a police interrogation room. Chain-smoking wordlessly, they play sweeping chamber rock with no lyrics. What little language appeared on previous albums, as "field recordings," is eschewed on their latest, Steve Albini-recorded opus Yanqui U.X.O. (Constellation).
But in manifesto-like cover art, pointed song titles, and abundant letters to the editor, Godspeed You! Black Emperor nonetheless convey an unmistakable political message of...
Well, hold that thought a minute.
This music gives you a lot of time to think, and maybe that's the point. Playing a Godspeed CD is like pressing pause on the rest of the world. Before the first song on Yanqui U.X.O. is over, I have time to read the sleeve notes, which say that "U.X.O." stands for unexploded ordnance. I also have time to look over the crudely drawn map on the back cover connecting several of the world's largest entertainment conglomerates to arms manufacturers. CNN's parent company has a business relationship, I gather, with the good folks who brought you the Tomahawk cruise missile--250 of which are presently on ships in the Persian Gulf.
At this point, I feel compelled to note that the song "09-15-00" has been building for five minutes and it's just getting started. The orchestral strings sound like guitars and the guitars sound like strings--five of either, I would guess, though that screws up my math (who plays the drums and glockenspiel?). They're all sawing away in a giant, ominous, minor-key crescendo--good walking music, you might say, if by "walking" you mean going down to the basement and blowing your brains out. No, seriously, Godspeed's solemnity is at once overwhelmingly evocative and oddly inspiring. Which might be why I switch on my computer and perform an Internet search for the words "unexploded ordnance." Since the cover photo of Yanqui U.X.O. looks like old footage from the Indochina War, I type in "Laos" as well. Soon, I'm reading that villagers in the most heavily bombed country on earth call unexploded U.S. bombs "bombies."
Godspeed can't really be credited or blamed for what somebody does while listening to their CDs, of course. But they do make an uncanny soundtrack for the most fearful musings about the Gods of war, the Speed of life, the Blackest of euphemisms, the Empire, and You. It doesn't matter that the title "09-15-00" refers to the date of Ariel Sharon's fateful visit to the Temple Mount. The band's portentousness is all-purpose. Listening to them could make you think about getting busy in a Burger King bathroom--maybe with someone who just dumped a shake on your heart. Slap the disc into a portable player and see where it takes you besides your basement. The music moves with you. It pauses, builds, and collapses like an old Duke Ellington single--sometimes it even grooves like one. And as surely as DJ Shadow, it creates its own indescribable genre out of an all too familiar sense of dread. (As such, it's similarly vulnerable to charges of pretension and excess.)
After 15 minutes, the song still churning away, I'm searching for "land mines" on the computer. A Human Rights Watch report from December of 2001 claims that nearly half of all antipersonnel mines retained by the U.S. to protect South Korea from North Korea are actually stored in the U.S.--the same mines used to justify not signing the 1997 Mine Ban Treaty.
What's funny about my Korean search is that the following day, I correspond via e-mail with Jon Cannon, a contributor to London Review of Books, who tells me he threw a Godspeed track on a mix tape before heading to China. Walking around Dandong with his headphones on, he was gazing across the Yalu River at North Korea when the song came on. He'd forgotten it was there, he says, and the hairs on his neck stood up as he stared at the North Korean side of the bridge, which had been left as it was after being strafed by Americans during the Korean War.
"For a moment," he writes, "it seemed as if the North Koreans had focused 50 years of their history simply on providing the ultimate urban landscape/cultural setting in which to listen to such music."
Someday they'll have Burger King bathrooms there too, we can only hope.
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