I’m going to try to do this in as straightforward a way as I can. Although, honestly, when somebody needs to begin that way, it will never be as straightforward as it could be.
This morning, Punknews, a website I check more regularly than someone in my age bracket should readily admit to, posted a stream of a new album by a band from Michigan, Flint more specifically, named Empty Orchestra. I’m a sucker for melodramatic band names and things from the midwest (especially Michigan), and so I listened to it all the way through.
The thing about art is (ok. I’m sorry. But still. The thing about art is) that there are two extremes one can take it to, and then an infinite number of permutations within the spectrum. But people who look at, create, think about art tend to be pretty emotional people, the type, in general for grand gestures, bold statements. So a lot of them would make one of two arguments.
Art is there as an answer; songs get closer to expressing things that speech cannot, and even the most straightforward-seeming picture is saying something more than just, “here’s a barn.” Art uses a vocabulary we understand. Even abstract art is still trying to give us something to latch onto. Even the dadaists, who thought that art had no meaning, honestly, that nothing had meaning, ended up falling into a historical context which helped people look at and understand and put themselves into their creations. Art is there to help, this argument says. In many ways, art is your friend.
Art is not beholden to you in any way. If you’re making art for people to latch onto, then you’re making shit, you’re wasting your time, you’re doing the work of the machine which paints pictures of barns which hang on the walls of Comfort Inns off every exit of I-80. Art should ask questions, it should push us, it should spit in the face of understanding, structure, or ease. Art is not your friend; art is complicated. Art is a teacher you hate to the core while you’re taking his or her course, but whose lessons you will think back to for the rest of your life.
I like the new PJ Harvey album because it is the latter. With rare exceptions (the airless and ardent “The Last Living Rose”), it is an incredibly different listen, even more so than her louder, more abrasive, earlier albums. It is so difficult and simultaneously so rewarding because it has an anger which refuses to give you an origin. Its songs exist not because of momentum, melody, lyrics, or, for what I would argue is the first time in her career, Harvey’s beautiful voice. They exist because, and for the purpose of getting at a mood. It’s the latter group to the core; while the album title, song titles, and advanced press would have you believe the album is PJ Harvey grappling with the legacy of her home country, it really isn’t that, outside of the surface level stuff like song titles. It’s a complex album, not at all easy to listen to, but one which rewards those who come back again and again to it. If you listen to Let England Shake once, you will probably not like it. If you think the purpose of art is not to give you an easy answer or provide a soundtrack to life, you will probably love it.
Getting back to the argument about art, I think my favorite artists in any medium are those that work with the concept of the latter (art is complex) within the architecture of the former (art can help you) One example of many- Kazuo Ishiguro’s books have an easily identifiable eeriness, and they make readers wrestle with issues of cultural identity and colonialism, and refuse to allow any easy conclusions. But the books do that without screaming at the top of their lungs THE NOVEL IS DEAD, NARRATIVES MUST BE FRACTURED IN ORDER TO TELL A TRUTH, THAT LAST STATEMENT IS A LIE BECAUSE THERE IS NO TRUTH, THAT LAST STATEMET IS ALSO A LIE BECAUSE WITHOUT TRUTH THERE CAN BE NO LIES@#!@#!@#!@#. They make their points within the framework of a detective story, science fiction, faux-memoir. So there are things that can split the difference, which is my favorite way of doing things, but is by no means “better” than either of the extremes I talk about, just the one I gravitate towards.
Put another way; art that does nothing but challenge someone who comes upon it will certainly provoke thought, but it will not necessarily be easy to enjoy. I could probably write an essay about the most recent Brian Eno album, but the truth is, in the almost-12 months i’ve owned it, I’ve only listened to the thing twice, and don’t plan on adding to that total at any point soon.
Getting back to what I was talking about before the argument about art, there’s this band from Flint, Michigan called Empty Orchestra. They are, to put it in the worst, most offensively generic terms that I can, a band who work with varying elements of country, punk, and folk music in their songs. I have listened to their album three times through since downloading it this morning. What I want to do now is tell you that you’ve probably heard an album similar to this, then tell you that just because an album isn’t breaking boundaries doesn’t mean it’s not also very, very good, then tell you that “One More Time, All Together Now,” the new album by Empty Orchestra, is familiar down to its both wonderful and also wince-worthy title, and that doesn’t make it any less enjoyable, or any less of a cohesive, compelling album.
Except, of course, when I’m dead wrong. Empty Orchestra are smarter and deeper than the blanket label of “accessibility” gives them credit for. I’ll give two examples. “No Such Place” is about as good a summation of the current predicament of the Midwest, specifically Michigan, as I’ve ever heard. It is a song of push and pull; the enemy of this song is leaving. Leaving Michigan, in the case of this song, means giving up, abandonment. It does not mean progress nor does it mean “moving on.” Yet there is so much understanding and sympathy in “No Such Place” for those who leave. It’s a song which starts out of anger and self righteousness and ends just sad. It’s a song that looks around as it sings and gets emptier and emptier as it sees more driveways clearing out for good. It ends with just that drumbeat. Mid tempo. Still going, until it cannot.
“Echo’s Bones” is a song which doesn’t just let its pretty words sit there.”We view history/We view history/Like an endless stream of tiny Christmas lights.” OK. Fine. that’s a hook. It’s an image you can picture. It could be a poem, and a fine one. But I love how the song continues-
They provide no hope for illumination,
They don’t do anything to hold back the night
They’re really more for decoration
‘Cause we’re alone in this life.
They put the words there for a reason. Even if you don’t agree, you have to at least admit they’ve, in a poignant way, made an argument. They’re saying something. They’re not accoutrements. I’ll end this with one more set of lyrics from “Black and Blue”
There’s no need to shout.
We know the danger’s all around us.
We are safe as houses,
which aren’t really that safe;
It turns out locks can fail
And the place can burn down.
But, hey, will still need a place to stay.
Here’s the kicker- at least for now, they’re giving away their album. Absolutely free. You can download it here. At some point it will have a physical release on Paper and Plastik, who, if they keep up signings like this are looking to occupy a role as good as Thick Records, Revelation, or Jade Tree did in the late 90s, early 2000s.
EDIT- OK, so you can’t get their album for free any more, but you can (and should) buy it here.
Also, if you’re in chicago and want to see good music,