Through A Note Darkly is a weekly feature on thegreatalbums.com in which contributor Chris Villalta ranks and reflects on three albums he's heard a lot about, but has never heard in full before.
3. Love: Forever Changes
Personal Favorite: “Alone Again Or”
Summarizing Lyric: “Write the rules/In the sky/But ask your leaders/Why, Why?” (“Live and Let Live”)
For a band called Love to have moments as stark and dissonant as the interludes that fill the abyss between the upbeat and sexy Spanish-driven choruses on “Alone Again Or” is a statement in itself. It reminds the listener that love is not all happy sappy romance time. Following the law of entropy, all love, no matter how powerful and permanent it seems, will soon float away from you the way dandelion heads do. As many have pointed out before me, Forever Changes is great partly because it was made in the thick, laced with narcotics mist brought into fruition by flower children, and the creators hardly took a whiff.
“Hardly,” however, is the key word here. Sure, Arthur Lee pokes (or rather, stabs) fun at the 60s youth ideology with songs like “The Good Humor Man He Sees Everything Like This” in which the “good humor man” ignores the dark reality surrounding pretty hummingbirds and flowers and spends his time going “La da da da da da da,” but Lee also holds some optimism about the hippie movement ideology. The movement showed people they did not have to live their lives the suburban way: wake up, chew gum, hear sirens, and give your kid a toy that will keep them “in practice/waiting for the war.” The flower children showed people that their lives, their scene, was up to them. The problem Love saw, however, was despite the flower children showing people they didn’t have to crumble under the grip of repetitive suburban life, they still crumbled. They distracted themselves too much with flowers and allowed the evil lurking in the flower’s shadow to grow larger and larger until they could do nothing but watch it win in settings like Altamont. Love didn’t want the hippie movement to fall apart, but it had too. However, it didn’t have to end the way it did. The scene was up to us, the camera was in our hands, but we refused to look at the ugly leaks that needed fixing. “Everything I've seen needs rearranging,” sang Lee, and people ignored him. Instead, we kept our eyes on the flowers, so stricken with the beauty that our grip on the camera loosened, fell, and got picked up by the likes of Manson.
2. Frank Ocean: Channel Orange
Personal Favorite: “Pyramids”
Summarizing Lyric: “I’ll take bullshit if that’s all you got” (“Fertilizer”)
The albums I gravitate towards are often very confessional; they sound as if someone put music to pages of a diary. I like hearing people figure themselves through their art and up until now, I thought figuring yourself out meant meaning “I” when “I” was said. Frank Ocean may have meant “I” a few times, but his songs are character driven. From a rejected crack addict to a played with player, Ocean channel surfs on his TV, finding these tragic characters and often inhabiting them with the use of “I” to figure out who he is.
Is he the falsetto voiced boy in love who sings “Or do you not think so far ahead/Cause I’ve been thinkin’ bout forever,” or is he the smooth dude who sings “No, I don't like you, I just thought you were cool enough to kick it” (“Thinkin Bout You”)? Or are both personas bullshit like he says they are on the very next track (“Fertilizer”)? A stable identity is nowhere to be found on this record, but the record has an identity of its own. It is a person who does not know who they are, who confesses this lack of identity with the one-two punch that is “Thinkin Bout You” and “Fertilizer,” and spends the rest of its time travelling through other people, sounds, genres, channels in order to gain an understanding of its present state. No song showcases this grasping for understanding better than the sprawling epic that is “Pyramids.” We are taken from Ancient Egypt to modern day strip clubs, seeing women take control of their sexuality instead of men keeping it in check with the threat of death. The record refrains from commenting on this process. It simply watches it, feels it, becomes it in hopes of understanding what the world holds for it in this new millennium. Like Emerson did out in nature, Ocean seemed to become a transparent eyeball while making this record. He turned himself into nothing and propped his nothing self in front of a TV to see everything, from rich kids to Forrest Gump, in hopes of understanding a little bit more about something, of being able to see what the golden girl wishes he could see, once he turns it off.
1. Joy Division: Closer
Personal Favorite: “Twenty Four Hours”
Summarizing Lyric: “Watching the reel as it comes to a close/Brutally taking it's time” (“Passover”)
It’s discomforting, how comforting Closer becomes as it nears its end. Much like Tom Waits does with “Underground” kicking off Swordfishtrombones, “Atrocity Exhibition” kicks down a door hiding one of humanity’s many underbellies. Unlike Waits, however, Joy Division doesn’t just show you that there is a world underground. No, Joy Division invites you to stay, invites you to become one of the exhibits, says “Take my hand and I'll show you what was and will be.” And you do. You take that ice cold hand despite knowing exactly where that hand will lead you and what that hand will show you because we just need to know.
We need to know what the isolation sounds like, what the threat of time feels like, what the end of love would do to us if the rest of our body had the same qualities as the hand leading us through this asylum of a record. Luckily, hopefully, the journey through the asylum begins and ends with the hand for listeners, but the hand and its shrouded body has to stay on the record. Even when it’s not playing, the body sits on the tracks, alone in the void it is so eager to show somebody. Joy Division, specifically Ian Curtis, were that veiled body waiting to be discovered, ready to be heard, but not ready to leave the asylum. As I said before, it’s discomforting how comforting Closer becomes as it nears its end. After getting you grooving and head-banging with songs like “Means To An End” and “Twenty Four Hours,” the record settles, Curtis croons, “Just watching the trees and the leaves as they fall,” at the end of “The Eternal,” with a beautiful soundscape behind him that makes it feel okay to close your eyes and stay in the record’s world. Then comes in “Decades,” and we remember that we put ourselves in the record by taking Joy Division’s hand, not the other way around. We found this record, saw the haunting cover, new the Joy Division lore, and listened anyways. In other words, “We knocked on the doors of Hell’s darker chamber/Pushed to the limit, we dragged ourselves in.” As dark as it is, many people need this record. I need this record. Or else people would be living this record. It’s just tragic that someone had to live through the darkness on Closer for it to have been recorded.