Through A Note Darkly: Exodus, Songs of Leonard Cohen, Sound of Silver

Through A Note Darkly is a weekly feature on 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. LCD Soundsystem: Sound of Silver

Personal Favorite: “Someone Great”

Summarizing Lyric: “For kids that think it still exists… Maybe I'm wrong and maybe you're right” (“New York, I Love You But You’re Bringing Me Down”)

I have a troubled relationship with dance music. The only time I really hear it is when a roommate decides to blast it out of their headphones while I’m trying to sleep. To my surprise, dance music isn’t just subpar remixes of already subpar songs. Sound of Silver showed me there may be more than just overproduced dance beep boops being put out today; dance beep boops that earns its merit with scenic beats and accompanying lyrics that can lead to tears being mixed with sweat on the dance floor; dance beep boops that can entertain as an album just as much as shuffled tracks for soccer moms to cycle to. “Get Innocuous” is the perfect name for the first track on this record. It has just the right balance of corny dance song title and bitter middle-aged man commentary on the way life has been and is being lived, and that same blend is on the track itself. We hear the jitterbug rhythm be overtaken by James Murphy’s reverberated voice trying to combat the innocuous rhythm, but the innocuous comes back with the gym trainer voice coaching him on what to do. Instead of settling for sanitized dance music, however, Murphy compromises with the genre by having the cliche gym trainer voice say his words, “You can normalize,” a plea to himself to accept and sterilize the very music he is making instead of muddying it up with his emotive lyrics and desire to contain it in a cohesive album. The rest of the record zooms out of this inner struggle concerning the treatment of the dance genre and lets us see Murphy struggle with mourning (“Someone Great”), aging (“All My Friends”), nostalgia (“Sound of Silver”), and being a New Yorker (“New York, I Love You But You’re Bringing Me Down”). There is enough angst on Sound of Silver to get even the most guitar-oriented listeners grooving, and any album with a track that can get an arena full of Americans to start chanting “We are North American scum” and maybe awaken some self-awareness is a success in my angsty head.

A Sound of Silver-inspired drawing

Why #3?: After five songs full of unexpected poetry, the 8:30 long "Us V Them" comes on. It's not a bad dance song, but it is only a dance song and does not expand itself with poeticism the way the other tracks did. The fact that it also stands at the middle, the place where the pillars should be, made the record sag for too long a time in my opinion. I think ridding the album of the song and replacing it with "Sound of Silver" would have really made the album soar


2. Bob Marley and The Wailers: Exodus

Personal Favorite: “Exodus”

Summarizing Lyric: “Jam's about my pride and truth I cannot hide/To keep you satisfied” (“Jammin”)

An Exodus-inspired drawing

I participated in a protest for the first time this week. What was beautiful and comforting about the experience was the collective belief that our unity could lead to change. I didn’t want that feeling to end, so I listened to Bob Marley and The Wailers, and they didn’t disappoint.

On no tracks did The Wailers fail to lock me into a groove that got me to close my eyes and move in ways I didn’t think I ever could or would and never did I feel embarrassed because I could feel Bob Marley and The Wailers moving with me. Marley’s voice often mimics the soothing groove, so there was only one place left for dissonance–the lyrics. On the first and arguably stronger half of the record, Marley’s lyrics stir a rage, particularly the lyric “These are the big fish/Who always try to eat down the small fish,” but that rage is tempered, made sensible, by Marley’s provision of answers and hope for a better future, “Jah come to break downpression/Rule equality/Wipe away transgression/Set the captives free.” Instead of just sending an already frustrated “generation [who] trod through great tribulation” off to fight blindly against downpressors, he shows the big picture result of what such a fight will lead to. “One Love” and “Three Birds” may feel corny if they come up on shuffle, but in the context of the album they are exactly what is needed. After the anger against the downpressors, the frustration with the lack of romantic relationships, and the fear that all effort is applied in vain is expressed, Marley tells us what nature itself tells us everyday by having continued to exist and grow for billions of years, “‘Every little thing is gonna be alright” once we share “One love… One heart”–once compassion is our dominant characteristic. The album’s close might seem impossibly optimistic, but the balance of anger and hope on the record make the optimism feasible, makes Jah’s love attainable.

Why #2?: It makes sense that the love songs are on the record considering the sequencing's mimicking of anger dissipating into love, but "Turn Your Lights Down Low" feels like one love song too much that just gets in the way of the final two beauties. 

1. Leonard Cohen: Songs of Leonard Cohen

Personal Favorite: “So Long, Marianne”

Summarizing Lyric: “He taught that the duty of lovers/is to tarnish the golden rule/And just when/I was sure that his teachings were pure/he drowned himself in the pool” (“One Of Us Cannot Be Wrong”)

Every one of the songs on this LP are worthy of 5+ page essays that dissect the poetic devices at play in them and how those devices mingle with the evoked images to create feelings of dread and a dreadful love for that dread, but the album as a whole demands a more minimalist treatment.

 A Songs of Leonard Cohen-inspired drawing

After a flurry of words and rambling guitar-playing, I was left listening to a poet realize that his words, the symbols he was so desperate to perfect and present as above other elements of music like the music itself (producer John Simon had to fight to get more than just an acoustic guitar on the record), were futile. The image of Suzanne taking your hand and showing you where to look, “Among the garbage and the flowers” to see “heroes in the seaweed… children in the morning [all] leaning out for love… [leaning] that way forever,” is both haunting and hopeful (they won’t reach love, but at least they won’t stop trying), but the image is written. No matter how beautifully images are written (and Cohen did write beautifully), they are written, presented in letters, and therefore artificial. Considering his efforts to make an acoustic-only record, Cohen seemed to be striving to create something sober and realistic at a time when psychedelic music was on the rise by emphasizing his written words. The amount of production on the album shows that he caved a bit, that he realized songs are more than scored words, and we hear his reaction to this realization. The whistles and moans that punctuate “One Of Us Cannot Be Wrong” and the entire album are the sounds of a poet giving up on words, deeming them artificial, and becoming one with the music by cleansing his throat of letters, filling them with sounds. I love words, and I think it's safe to say that Cohen did too, so it saddens me that Songs of Leonard Cohen is right; all the pain, hate, love, desire to live and need to die explored with words are nothing compared to primal, unwritten whistles and moans–the actual sounds of pain, hate, love, desire to live and need to die. Having this knowledge might make some artists flee from the impossible task of replicating natural beauty with words, but Cohen kept going. Thank god Cohen kept going.

Why #1: Simon's pet sounds and Cohen's Spanish-influenced guitar playing alone could satisfy the mind as a score to wintry days, but it was Cohen's imagery on this LP, a man desperate to match natural beauty with carefully plotted verses, that made me howl in disbelief as he did at the end of the record when I found out that a camera as near perfect as his could actually be labeled "gone." At least he took the time to take some pictures for us.