I’m catching up on some reading this morning and just finished this Cokemachineglow review of GYBE’s Allelujah! Don’t Bend! Ascend! by Conrad Amenta.
Canada is now experiencing a dyed-in-the-wool, law-and-order, defense-spending, social-contract shredding, anti-tax Conservative agenda, one with which I don’t necessarily agree but which I don’t deny seems to resonate with a majority of Canadians. Where Canadian politics tend to avoid the kind of volume and polemics that America’s year-long federal campaigns involve, at home Godspeed may find currency in the kind of paranoia in which they excel. However, it’s not paranoia we need: it’s voices on the left articulating more than anger. Canada has a new subterranean truth, and that truth is that the majority of Canadians are conservative thinkers. I can think of no better time for one of Canada’s most respected protest bands, living in one of Canada’s most progressive cities, to talk about health care, taxation, First Nations and Aboriginal rights, women’s rights, fucking anything but how “The gatekeepers gazed upon their kingdom and declared that it was good.” Which: yeah. And?
The review all but ignores the music in favor of an exploration of its context—the politics of this band—and how the reviewer feels they fall short of being effectively political. I don’t think that’s a bad approach: it’s an under-addressed topic, it’s insightful for those with no knowledge of Canadian politics, and it’s worthwhile because it’s thoroughly opinionated. (Worthwhile for me, that is; if you read a lot of political music writing or are thoroughly versed in Canadian politics, this piece might seem facile.)
This is a perfect example of an ‘important’ record meaning different things to different people, and of cultural critics pulling on its edges to move it to their corner of the court.
Mark Richardson’s Pitchfork review encourages a focus on the art:
The focus on the band’s politics obscures something important: Godspeed You! Black Emperor are making art, not writing editorials. And the fact that they are making art gives them leeway to do things that wouldn’t work in the context of pure rhetoric. It allows them to find magnificence in destruction and build an aesthetic out of decay and loss. So for all their political slogans, pointed titles, and references to global doom, engagement with Godspeed’s music can feel exceedingly personal. When listening to their music, I’m not necessarily thinking about the downtrodden transcending their place in the capitalist hierarchy or the end of the world; I’m thinking about the idea of transcendence, the raw grace of noise, and the tragedy of endings. Godspeed’s music works so brilliantly because it can be abstracted and scaled, blown up into an edifice that towers over a continent or shrunk down to something that feels at home in a bedroom. So mapping the contours of their grand music onto your own ordinary life can feel both natural and inspiring.
And that, I think, is how most people approach the album.
For Sean T. Collins, the bleakness of the album was a mirror.
Ian Latta at Tiny Mix Tapes points out that while the band is unapologetically and specifically political, the results are usually more symbolic and indirect than they are activist, and the band has as much to do with that as do art-over-politics fans:
On this album, “Mladic” ends with a recording of drumming in an Occupy Montreal protest; the liner notes call out specific bills in the Canadian parliament; and the LP is inscribed on Side A with, “TWO THOUSAND STONED KIDS WILL BE STOKED,” and on Side B, “TOO BAD THEY DON’T VOTE.”
None of this is to say that anyone expects GY!BE to lead a revolution or that they hold any of their listenership more responsible for the state of the world than they hold themselves. But we know that when feeble attempts are called satisfactory in the face of a wall that grows ever bigger, that crescendo just starts to build up again. Should we hit the wall again? Should we see how other people are confronting the wall? No, let’s just pretend we got through it again. Let’s do what we did 10 years ago. We can’t pretend the past 10 years haven’t happened, can’t pine for mom and pop record stores and that perfect moment of communion when everyone in your squat reached consensus on what typeface should be used for that zine. We can’t undo the internet, can’t opt out of the media completely, and can’t ignore the developments of the past 10 years. We can’t rewind the film loop, but we can burn it.
I enjoy Allelujah!, but the politics trouble me. Just listening to that sample at the beginning of the first track makes me anxious. What is it, why did they include it, and what does that mean that they included it? A sample of the titular war criminal being arrested? If that’s the Mladic they mean? Mladic has little to do with Canadian politics, right? How far out should one’s political concern extend? Is the sample just supposed to draw a line from genocide and a twenty-minute musical epic as a signifier of gravity? And why that sample? Just the unsettling, matter-of-fact tone of voice of a man observing and/or affecting the end of a manhunt? This album’s introduction, I suppose, to “the idea of transcendence, the raw grace of noise, and the tragedy of endings.”
A bunch of questions, followed by twenty minutes of noise to bury those questions. But I so badly want it to make sense! You brought politics into this, Godspeed, so finish the sentence! It’s easy to get cynical and think that Godspeed uses political symbols and half-formed thoughts to prop up their art while making no political difference, but I think there’s more to it. Maybe those questions aren’t being buried, but pounded out ad nauseam.
One of the big lessons I took from writing about literature in college was that teasing apart a text for its meaning wasn’t important because you would uncover The Artist’s True Intention, but because the process of trying created a valuable discussion and lead to insight. This is what I love about music writing and tearing music apart—it’s learning. Even, maybe especially, learning that failure to make sense of the thing is the thing.
So at the risk of projecting, I think Godspeed You! Black Emperor amplifies and reflects the anxiety of politically concerned but powerless listeners because Godspeed You! Black Emperor themselves are politically concerned but appear to affect no change. The music is long and loud and a statement, the statement has power because its long and loud, and so the statement is about power. That art speaks to us and in so doing is powerful. Powerful speech can make for political change, or it can remind you what the world sounds like without it.
(UPDATE: I somehow missed Jeremy Larson’s phenomenal review of Allelujah! at Consequence of Sound. It addresses the issues above to a similar conclusion and with a keen eye on the band’s back catalog and the actual music on the album. Essential.)