Last week, I started a series featuring insightful new essays available on the web. This week's feature,explores spiritual longing in indie rock.
The Believer just put out its Music issue, a roving collection in which Thom Yorke tells
Read the essay's beginning paragraphs below, but visit thebelievermag.com for the rest.
|CONCERNING THE SPIRITUAL
IN INDIE ROCK
In his strange, dazzling 1911 essay “Concerning the Spiritual in Art,” Wassily Kandinsky wrote, “Music has been for some centuries the art which has devoted itself not to the reproduction of natural phenomena but rather to the expression of the artist’s soul.” As he saw it, analyzing earthly minutiae that would soon become irrelevant was less important than pushing against the boundaries of consciousness and expanding the scope of mankind’s experience. “Literature, music and art are the first and most sensitive spheres in which this spiritual revolution makes itself felt,” as artists “turn away from the soulless life of the present towards those substances and ideas which give free scope to the non-material strivings of the soul.” By “spiritual,” Kandinsky meant both the universal and the emotional—accessing both the enormity of the cosmos and the bottomless depths of the human psyche.
Kandinsky’s is an uncompromising standard. But what does it tell us about Animal Collective’s latest single?
Among the immediate forerunners of indie rock’s current metaphysical fixation, Neutral Milk Hotel’s 1998 In the Aeroplane Over the Sea is perhaps the most widely cherished. The album combines Middle Eastern and South Asian devotional music and Christian prayer, sometimes within the same song, to conjure the dream-story of the singer’s mournful, soul-consuming obsession with Anne Frank.
This potentially disastrous conceit somehow yields a mysterious, ruminative, and profoundly affecting album. Hundreds of years of history melt together in a feverish heap of images. Without ever mentioning Frank’s full name, Neutral Milk Hotel’s singer and songwriter, Jeff Mangum, projects onto her ghostly figure a lifetime of anxieties about youth and aging, love and sex, birth and death and rebirth. We see his heroine buried alive only weeks before her liberators would have come, and then reincarnated as a “little boy in Spain playing pianos filled with flames.” Mangum idealizes childhood and its chaste, innocent love affairs. Adult sexuality, with its insidious reminders of mortality, both attracts and repels him; the album bursts at the seams with bodily fluids and putrefying flesh.
Mangum’s lyrics are strong enough that they could work on the page as poetry, but it’s the arrangements that propel the songs heavenward. Violently plucked folk guitar amplifies the singer’s ardor, and the antiquated instruments of rural musicians—banjo, singing saw, flugelhorn—get caught in the swells of miniature symphonies. Tapes, radios, and filters add another dimension, as layers of sound swell and then fade into the distance. Mangum’s vocal cords are the most expressive instruments of all, allowing him to embody the roles of lover, child, and mystic. At moments he sounds messy and frantic, a holy fool receiving revelations in the desert; his voice stretches and quivers as he sings funeral dirges for his lost love. On “King of Carrot Flowers Pts. Two & Three,” Mangum strains to reach a higher register, chanting, “I love you, Jesus Christ”—in nasal tones reminiscent of a Muslim call to prayer.
As if to cement Aeroplane’s mythic impact, the cryptic and fragile Mangum abandoned his band before Neutral Milk Hotel could begin to lead a movement. Today’s cadre of spiritually oriented musicians finds its de facto leadership in Animal Collective, a group that has spent nearly a decade chipping away at the barrier between earth and heaven. The incantatory single “My Girls,” from the band’s newest album, Merriweather Post Pavilion, is a glittering whirlpool of synthetic sound. Harmonic elements merge, divide, and disappear like cells gone wild, only to resurface, transformed, a verse or two later.
Animal Collective is only one of many bands striving for something more resonant than a catchy melody. At their most potent, these artists make big, constantly evolving sounds that redraw the universe around us in deep Kandinsky colors. Harmonies build, choruses climax with eye-dilating intensity, and, if we’re lucky, time and space get disrupted.