Through A Note Darkly is a weekly feature on thegreatalbums.com in which contributor Chris Vill ranks and reflects on three albums he's heard a lot about, but has never heard in full before.
3. Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young: Déjà Vu
Personal Favorite: “Almost Cut My Hair”
Summarizing Lyric: “Rejoice, rejoice, we have no choice but to carry on.” (“Carry On”)
I’m sure that as more years begin to bend my back I’ll stop killing smiles with thoughts of the joy's inevitable ending, but for the time being I’m stuck here wondering “what’s going on under the ground” instead of just enjoying youth, a personal Woodstock (“Déjà Vu”).
I know how annoying negativity can be, but I’ve only just learned about it. Childhood memories of “blue windows behind the stars/Yellow moon on the rise/Big birds flying across the sky” are in my head, but that’s the problem. The images are only in my head, “The chains are locked and tied across the door,” and I can’t do anything about it (“Helpless”). How can I enjoy this Woodstock when I’ve already seen the first Woodstock fade? I don’t know, but like a child who's just learned a new word, I’m obsessed with the idea of things being temporary (even temporality itself!) and keep repeating it in hopes of making sense of it. CSNY, I feel, might have been on a similar playing field as me and so many other neurotics while making Déjà Vu. By 1970, CSNY members were in their mid to late twenties, which means their childhood synced up with America’s “innocent” decade that was the late 40s and 50s. As they felt their personal childhoods shrivel, CSNY saw America’s childhood wilt as well with the Vietnam War and the free love 60s. The free love was a great prospect to much of the youth of the 60s, but CSNY seemed to have some suspicion about it. Just like childhood and the pretty 50s, the hippie 60s couldn’t possibly last. This kind of awareness might’ve left CSNY thinking about Woodstock’s ending and consequences instead of just enjoying it; might’ve left them lighting fires near some flowers (“Our House”), but not without some hope. The good thing about temporality is it isn’t selective. Just like a smile will fade, so will pain, and the bomber jets in the sky will become butterflies for at least a little while (“Woodstock”). Déjà Vu, as negative as it gets, ultimately seems to tell the disillusioned not to cut their hair. Go with the flow and show some love on your way to the finish lines.
Why #3: This is my personal favorite of this week’s trio. The harmonies, the solo efforts, the guitars are all impeccable, but I can’t say that it’s the best because all the songs are almost too equal in strength. A good album needs a few meh tracks to make the good tracks great and the great tracks mind-blowing. Déjà Vu doesn’t benefit from lackluster songs. Also, this record leaves room for improvement in terms of sequencing whereas the other two are impenetrable in that sense.
2. Modest Mouse: The Moon and Antarctica
Personal Favorite: “A Different City”
Summarizing Lyric: “I don’t want you to be alone down there” (“Alone Down There”)
The Moon and Antarctica, the Sun and Los Angeles, outer space and the ocean, it’s all the same. Some people are more irked by this than others, and I think this record is for the irked cynics to get frustrated at the unchanging nature of the world with instead of doing it alone. Track by track, we are taken on a road trip across the glass half-empty mind. As with any trip, the start is exciting (finally, a different city!), the middle can be dreary (every city’s been a shithole–what’s the point?), and the end new has new lessons to offer (better call mom; she’ll want to know I made it) that few choose to take.
The best bit of the album may be the depression trifecta of “The Cold Part,” “Alone Down There,” and “The Stars Are Projectors.” It is in this middle section that the slight hope we held of some part of the world being better (“A Different City”) is zapped with “The Cold Part,” a reinforcement to the answer to the question on “Tiny Cities Made of Ashes,” “Does anybody know a way that a body could get away?”–“Right wing, left wing, chicken wing.” In other words, Why are you asking? The Sun and L.A, it’s all the same. Nothing changes with transcendence. This sentiment seems to back up the cynic’s belief of the world being an eternal cold part, but it is actually used to point out the vocal cynic’s hypocrisy. Yes, all politicians spew grime, all people are disguising the fact that they are rats, but why get so worked up about it? You say nothing changes, but you’re screaming “The universe is shaped exactly like the earth/If you go straight long enough you'll end up where you were,” as if that’ll change something. You’re no different from the spewers filling up the air with words “Until there's nothin' left to breathe” (“Life Like Weeds”). Naturally, this pointing out of hypocrisy changes nothing. After the road trip, Brock’s character is seen lashing out at love, pointing out how futile it is. This is why there’s no lack of angst-driven music. Some people, including me, can’t get over the fact that we “ain’t made of nothin’ but water and shit,” so they keep pointing it out. It’s annoying, but at least The Moon and Antarctica’s come out of it sometimes.
Why #2: The record has an arc that mimics the cycle of the angst-filled (angry, sad, possibility of change, repeat). The center song, “Alone Down There,” stands as the perfect pillar that states why the album is happening. The My Bloody Valentine-inspired use of air and disturbingly meditative sounds to end tracks are awesome, but some tracks do limp to the 0:00 mark. I like that they do that, but some might listen and think the record could have been edited down a bit.
1. The Clash: London Calling
Personal Favorite: “Hateful”
Summarizing Lyric: “Death or glory becomes just another story” (“Death or Glory”)
Who could’ve predicted that punk, the genre that heralded attitude over aesthetic, would birth an album as eclectic and aesthetically pleasing as London Calling. Forgive me for the pun, but The Clash is a fitting name considering how much they clashed (again, sorry) punk music and its angst with every other rock genre that came before it.
From jazz to blues to 50s sock hop to the physically distant sounds of reggae, The Clash brought a myriad of rebellious genres under their masterful wing to create an anthological album that any fan of music with rock n’ roll roots can look to and see how the genre had evolved up until the 80s to include a voice as dire and dirty as Joe Strummer’s. Now, a lot of the reviews I read about the album came to the conclusion that London Calling, despite it’s apocalyptic beginning, is ultimately a hopeful album that celebrates rock n’ roll and its progression. I would agree with that opinion if “Revolution Rock,” a song where the inevitable ending of rock n’ roll (playing “weddings, parties, everything”) is treated with a smile because “El Clash combo” still gets to play their music, was actually the final track, but “Train in Vain” is the real ending that has either been shrugged off or forced into the category of “hopeful.” “Train in Vain” is not just a breakup song, it is an abandonment song that I couldn’t help but feel was directed at the rock n’ roll The Clash had spent two LPs worth of wax writing a love letter to. The punk movement was rock n’ roll imploding, the pink and green of Elvis Presley’s cover being smashed. A society without rules can’t survive, so rock n’ roll died. Mick Jones’ radio-friendly voice on “Train in Vain” becomes ours as we look back on rock with The Clash and see the music was never here to stay–”Did you stand by me?/No, not at all.” Here come the 80s.
Why #1?: The variety is present, the theme is maintained, the lyrics range from pop nonsense to Cohen levels of poetry, and, above all, what makes London Calling special is it teaches the history of rock just as much as it entertains with rock. The record is longer than The Moon and Antarctica, but no track feels too long or short. Every minute was needed.