Friday, August 31, 2007

Form & Content: Together At Last

Or Why the National is My New Interpol

When I first started listening to music, I tended to look for something not to like. I don’t like the singer’s voice. I don’t like these dissonant guitars. I don’t like these lyrics. Now thankfully I look for something to like, since first impressions can be so unpredictable. (Oddly, often times the song I least like on an album initially will become my favorite. There’s something about being challenged, breaking down the pieces and making sense of them, that allows me to take such joy in the reconstructed picture.)

My criteria for acceptable music have changed over the years as surely as my grade school criteria for men: “Has to be Catholic, have good teeth, and like Mexican food.” (Several years later, I can attest that Mexican food, at least, still has a grip on me.) My early music checklist probably looked something like this: “Has to be weird but not too weird, has to have a pleasing aesthetic, has to have good lyrics.”

The latter of the three tended to be the deal breaker. This meant phenomenal bands like Sigur Rós took some time. After initially attempting to form words (English words, at that!) out of Jónsi Birgisson 's Hopelandic gibberish, I gave up. I had to redefine how I listened to music, how I appreciated music, and I haven’t been that same sorry girl since.

So yes – shock! – music most certainly is the essential component of music. Hold your snickering, please. I still argue that those lyricists who pen impeccable poetics will forever hold the biggest power over this listener. Hear me out.

I blame it all on the fact that I’m an English teacher. It’s that whole bit about form and content working together to create an overall tone/theme. A classic example: In the song “Let Down,” as the form of the song (how it’s conveyed – aka the music) spirals into madness and despair, the content (what the song’s about) mirrors that impending madness as Thom Yorke repeats the nonsensical phrase, “You know where you are with.” Thom’s losing it so much he’s lost all notion of proper grammar, which to this listener at least conveys total lunacy.

The interplay of form and content is precisely why a band like The National has me all in the tizzy. In “Green Gloves,” when Matt Berninger sings in his smooth bass, “Out of touch with all my / friends are somewhere getting wasted,” the word “friends” must serve double duty to complete both sentences. Beyond that, it seems Berninger is so out of touch that he cannot complete the sentence in which he is asserting this point – which, of course, ensures that his point is asserted. Call me crazy, but this type of wordplay is the closest thing to this listener to the sublime. Plus the music kicks ass.

Interpol is playing KC next month. I am at best ambivalent. It’s not because they have suddenly burst onto the mainstream scene (although that's a small part of it). It’s not even just because the band’s overall aesthetic has changed (although that’s a big part of it). It’s because as Interpol move away from the dark dissidence of Turn on the Bright Lights – their form – they seemed to have taken content on a cruise, too. Oh Paul Banks, where are the obscure lyrics of yesteryear? When will you once more hold my sentimental side with kid gloves? When again can we be together in the jungle and it will be OK? The band will never write another “The New,” “Leif Erikson,” or “Stella Was a Diver and She Was Always Down” musically or lyrically, which means the Interpol I fell in love with are all but dead to me.

I am definitely more open-minded about music these days. I fall in love easier with new music, but it seems I’m also less able to forgive and forget when an artist fails to live up to their potential. My love’s a (finnicky) pony, you could say. Better yet, a bucking bronco.

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