Roberts swings with the liberals on Covid safety and church gatherings

I say it all the time: The Supreme Court doesn’t exist to rule in favor of what we like, or against what we dislike, only to determine the constitutionality of laws under fire. Chief Justice Roberts doesn’t always get this right, but last night he did, in upholding state restrictions on churches during the Covid pandemic. The four liberal justices joined his ruling.

This reminds me of Roberts’ swing-vote with the liberals back in National Federation of Independent Business vs. Sebelius (2012), in which he recognized that Obamacare was a constitutional exercise of Congress’ taxing power. For Obamacare is certainly a tax: it’s an amendment to the Internal Revenue Code; it’s calculated based on a percentage of adjusted gross income or a fixed amount, whichever is larger; it raises revenue; it serves the general welfare, and is not a criminal penalty in disguise. It fits the definition of a tax to a tee. Even if you oppose Obamacare (I’m not wild about it myself, and Roberts was never a fan), the point is that Obamacare is not unconstitutional. That’s what matters in a Supreme Court ruling.

Last night in South Bay United Pentecostal Church v. Newsom (2020), Roberts explained (with relative ease) why a state’s social restrictions during pandemic are not unconstitutional. The California church have accused its state governor of violating its religious freedom, by a policy that limits attendance at houses of worship to 25 percent of building capacity or a maximum of 100 attendees, whichever is lower. The church members have been claiming that because the policy allows certain secular businesses, like grocery stores, to operate under looser guidelines, it discriminates against churches in favor of commercial establishments, thus violating the First Amendment.

Roberts pointed out that while California does limit church attendance, it also applies similar or even harsher restrictions to lectures, concerts, movie showings, spectator sports, and theatrical performances. So the question is, are churches more like grocery stores or concerts? And according to Roberts, that’s a question for lawmakers, not justices. When and how restrictions are lifted is a question that the Constitution leaves to state officials, whose decisions shouldn’t be second-guessed by judges who lack the background to assess the health risks of local areas.

And frankly it doesn’t take much sense to see that churches are more like concerts. People gather closely in churches and concerts, and in large groups, for extended periods of time. Grocery stores carry essential food and people can social-distance. Brett Kavanagh didn’t address this point in his dissent, taking it (rather absurdly) for granted that churches are more like grocery stores.

It’s encouraging when justices swing against their own tribe. In itself it means nothing, but it often indicates that at the very least they aren’t ruling as ideologues. Roberts has swung with the liberals on a few occasions — not always rightly in my view, but most of the time. Neil Gorsuch is even better in this regard. He joined the wrong ruling in this case, but he’s usually the best judicial thinker on the court.

Tales From the Loop

Over the weekend I discovered the TV-treasure that is Tales from the Loop. It’s based on the sci-fic artistry of Simon Stålenhag, which in turn inspired the role-playing game released in 2017, and so I was delighted to learn of a cinematic adaption even as I worried about a Stranger Things rehash. It’s set in a small midwestern town in the ’80s (Ohio instead of Indiana); there’s a lab where dangerous experiments are performed; and kids play a key role. But this is definitely its own thing. It’s not about ’80s nostalgia; the period is incidental. And where Stranger Things is full of anxious and overt horrors, using action sequences to supplement the character drama, Tales from the Loop shines in the small and quiet moments. Put it this way: Stranger Things is ET and Gremlins and Alien; this series is Blade Runner and Twin Peaks, filtered through a Kubrick-like lens where everything is held coldly at arm’s length, even as it magnifies the intimate. Dialogue is restrained and used like a precious commodity; every word counts.

The feeling of expansive emptiness has put off some viewers, but it works for me. I haven’t been so dreamily affected by cinema since my last Kubrick or Lynch film. The set pieces and atmosphere exude a sad beauty, as if science exacts a price in direct proportion to its wonders.

The series opens on the face of Russ Willard, played by High Sparrow (as we know him from Game of Thrones) Jonathan Pryce. He’s the founder of the Mercer Center for Experimental Physics (MCEP) — AKA “the Loop” — and speaks to the camera directly, explaining to us that the Loop’s purpose is to unlock and explore the mysteries of the universe: “As a result of the unique research,” he says, “you will see sights that you’d say were impossible.” And with that, the series begins. (Russ Willard will resurface throughout the season’s narratives, especially in episode 4.)

Willard’s tease is largely misdirection. Yes, we end up seeing lot of “impossible sights” —  time travel, body swapping, time freeze, snow that falls upwards, parallel-world travel, and robots with uncannily human traits — but that’s not what the series is about. Tales from the Loop is interested in people: their fears, traumas, and deepest hopes. The sci-fic mechanisms go unexplained; to Mercer’s residents they aren’t even terribly astonishing. These citizens have lived with the Loop for so long (and unlike the Hawkins lab in Stranger Things, the MCEP is no big secret) that its resulting impossibilities are frankly a bit mundane.

The format of the series is sort-of anthology, sort-of serial drama. Each of the eight episodes focuses on a major character who is minor in some of the other episodes. The main family are the Willards — Loretta and George, their sons Jakob and Cole, and of course granddaddy Russ — and this family is anchored throughout episodes 1, 2, 4, 7, and 8. Episodes 3, 5, and 6 are thinly connected storylines standing mostly on their own. Here are the episode themes and synopses.

1. Loop. Time travel. The young Loretta in the ’50s meets her adult self in the ’80s.
2. Transpose. Body swap. Jakob and his friend Danny decide to be each other for a day, but Danny refuses to leave Jakob’s body.
3. Stasis. Time stop. A girl traps herself and her boyfriend in a moment of time.
4. Echo Sphere. Imminent death. Russ is about to die; his grandson Cole is strangely connected to his identity in some way.
5. Control. Loss of control. A grieving father feels unable to protect and provide for his wife and daughter, and so buys a dangerous robot to patrol their property.
6. Parallel. Travel to parallel world. A guy meets his alternate self and has an affair with his doppleganger’s boyfriend.
7. Enemies. Human vs. machine. The young George in the ’50s is left stranded on an island and hunted by a killer robot.
8. Home. Time travel, body-swapping, and the question of humanity vs. machines. All of these come into play in a masterpiece finale.

Here’s how I rank the episodes.

https://rossonl.files.wordpress.com/2020/05/home1.png
1. Home (Episode 8). 5 stars. The finale is a masterpiece, but then Jodie Foster directed it. Basically Home resolves — as much as anything is ever “resolved” in this series — the threads from earlier episodes, with Cole realizing his brother Jakob is not Jakob, but Danny inside Jakob’s body. He searches Jakob out in the woods, and finds the lonely mute robot, and the bonding between the two brothers is deeply moving. When another robot arrives on the scene to attack, Jakob-Robot dishes out an ass-pounding that took me by surprise, leaving the other robot in pieces. But Jakob doesn’t last long after this battle, and his robotic self dies as Cole cradles him. Cole ends up crossing a bizarre stream that freezes in warm weather, and that puts him outside the Loop’s time barrier. His escapade with Jakob-Robot felt like only hours, but when he returns to the town, he finds a new Mercer in which his grandmother and father are dead. His mother Loretta is still alive, gray-haired, and polexaed to see him (and to see him still young) after so many years. He also meets Danny in Jakob’s now thoroughly adult body, and Cole tells Danny that Jakob didn’t hate him for what he did, allowing the two a very surprising peace. I don’t know that I could forgive someone who stole a family member’s body and identity. There are countless scenes in Home that soar with transcendent moments, and the ending epiphany — that our lives are over in “the blink of an eye” — hits home indeed.

Tales from the Loop • Episode Script • "Stasis" - 8FLiX
2. Stasis (Episode 3). 5 stars. Riding a theme that Cole will grind in the finale, Stasis is about the desperate need for things to stay the same. The girl May does this in the most audacious way imaginable — by stopping time altogether — so that she and her new boyfriend can make their “moment” of love last. It’s a self-standing episode focusing outside the Willard family, and all the more surprising therefore that it’s so damn good. We aren’t allowed much time to invest in May and Ethan, but I was thoroughly in love with them both by the end, especially for their flaws. Brilliant scenes here, especially those showing the residents of Mercer frozen in whatever they were doing when May flipped the switch, one of whom is her mother in the middle of having adulterous sex, to May’s outrage. When May and Ethan decide to bang each other outside in the middle of the road, that was certainly taking advantage “of the moment”! Their mutual enjoyment doesn’t last however, and in the end May learns a hard lesson — that sometimes things are special precisely because they don’t last. Appreciating that truth takes a lot of maturity and learned experience, usually starting with teenage heartbreak.

Enemies (2020)
3. Enemies (Episode 7). 4 ½ stars. The scariest episode was directed by horror-meister Ti West, and there are indeed scenes on the island that made my heart skip. Its brilliance is that it goes from scary to being just as sad. In the ’50s the young George Willard is left stranded by his cruel friends on the forbidden island, where he is stalked and terrorized by a creature that is a robot. This is how George loses his arm (in the previous episodes, the adult George’s mechanical arm is never explained), and when he returns to the island in the ’80s, he seeks out his childhood terror in order to make peace with it. It many sound corny, but the execution is heartbreaking, and he even gives the robot (who is missing an arm) his own robotic mechanical arm to apologize for hurting it. The union between humans and machines is a common trope in science fiction, exploring what it means to be human.

Transpose | Tales from the Loop Wiki | Fandom
4. Transpose (Episode 2). 4 ½ stars. Two friends who are opposites decide to be each other for a day. It sounds fun. Jakob Willard is a smart introvert with a promising future to work at the Loop. His friend Danny is quite the opposite — popular with girls, lousy with grades, expecting to pound rock at the quarry for the rest of his life. Jakob and Danny come across a spherical object in the woods, and when Jakob climbs inside, they find that they have swapped bodies. They agree to swap for a day and live at each other’s homes. The next day, however, Danny decides that he wants to stay inside of Jakob’s body forever: to live as Jakob Willard and work at the Loop, not pound rock in a dead-end job. Jakob, desperate, goes back to the forest and into the machine, but he is alone, and so when he leaves Danny’s body, there is no soul around to fill Danny’s body, and Danny’s body goes into a coma. That’s not the worst of it. Jakob becomes trapped in a robot (the nearest creature in the forest), and he will stay a robot until he dies in the finale. Danny, meanwhile, has to live with his crime of ultimate identify theft — living as Jakob Willard for the rest of the season, under the roof with a family he has no right to. Freaky Friday plots are usually predictable, but Transpose gives them nice twists and tragedy.

Tales From The Loop's Tech Explained: What Every Gadget Does
5. Echo Sphere (Episode 4). 4 stars. It’s ironic that the episode focusing on the Loop’s creator is the one that makes least use of the sci-fic medium to tell its story. Russ Willard takes his grandson Cole to a huge sphere that echoes when you shout into it; the more echoes you hear of your voice tells you how long your life will be. Cole’s shout returns six echoes; a promising life. When Russ shouts into it, there’s no echo at all, for (as the doctors have told him), he will soon die. That’s what the episode is about — our inevitable death, which not even the scientific miracles of the Loop can negate. It’s a story about a boy’s pain over a grandfather he loves too much to let go, but with a very arresting twist at the end that suggests Cole’s relation to his grandfather is something impossible.

Tales From the Loop' Review | Hollywood Reporter
6. Loop (Episode 1). 3 ½ stars. I admit I wasn’t wowed by the premiere, but it did hook me with its glacial atmosphere and intriguing time loop. Meeting one’s future self (and vice versa) runs the risk of pesky paradoxes, but Loop deftly sidesteps them by, well, sidestepping the young Loretta’s life when the Loop returns her to the ’50s. She will remember meeting her adult self as a dream, not an actual time travel, until she becomes that same adult in the ’80s when the closed loop replays itself. Many viewers aren’t sure what triggers the young Loretta’s time travel to the ’80s; it’s when she first touches the stone from the Eclipse, in the barren snow field where her house used to be. She returns to her present in the ’50s when she replaces the stone in the Eclipse. The story is one about maternal love, which Loretta never felt (being abandoned by her mother), and so was determined to love her kids — Jakob and Cole — no matter how much her career at the Loop consumed her.

Charlie McDowell on Twitter: "Tales From the Loop is here and ...
7. Parallel (Episode 6). 3 stars. The next two aren’t that impressive, partly because of the stand-alone aspect, where the anthology format is really felt. The main characters (the Willard family) aren’t involved. (On the other hand, see Episode 3, Stasis.) A guy finds a broken tractor in a field, and as soon as he fixes it, it sucks him through a portal into a parallel world. He finds an idealistic version of himself there, romantically involved with a man he had obsessed in his own world. One thing leads to another: he is invited to live with his doppleganger and boyfriend; eventually he has an affair with the boyfriend, which leads to disillusionment and his leaving the home to find a new life in the parallel world in which he’s forever stuck. The biggest problem with this story is that it could have been so much more. I’m a sucker for parallel-world dramas, but Parallel doesn’t exploit the alternate setting in any of the numerous ways it could have.

Tales from the Loop • Episode Script • "Control" - 8FLiX
8. Control (Episode 5). 2 ½ stars. The only episode I’d call a dud. Not just because of the stand-alone aspect involving characters we don’t give a shit about (the ineffectual parents and young sister of Danny, whose body is in a coma and dying in a hospital bed, thanks to Danny now inhabiting the body of Jakob Willard whom he pretends to be; see Episode 2, Transpose). And not just because the sci-fic elements are rather uninteresting. No, what burns my piles above all is the political axe-grinding. This is a blatant anti-gun parable, and while I am no fan of gun-rights fanatics, I don’t like being preached to, no matter how much I agree with the message. That’s hollow artistry. Control is about a guy who is paranoid about his home being spied on, and so buys a patrol robot, that one night almost kills his young daughter whom the robot is supposed to protect. Really, it’s that on the nose.

Retrospective: Graffiti

And here we are, at the end of my experiment. The final retrospective hardly qualifies as such, since the song is only two years old. How much distance is needed for a retrospective? Surely at least five, and usually closer to ten. This will be more a perspective, and different in another way too: it’s impossible for me to discuss, think about, or listen to “Graffiti” apart from how I used it in a work of literary fiction.

But first the band, Chvrches. They are well known purveyors of electronic synth-pop, a genre I usually have to be in the mood for. When I am, this Scottish trio is a cut above most. They’ve got chilly atmosphere and unexpected flourishes, and Lauren Mayberry’s voice, while hardly the gift of Irish Dolores O’Riordan, is beguiling in its pleas for a better world. The most recent album, Love is Dead, isn’t as impressive as the previous two; ironically it contains Chvrches’ best song ever.

“Graffiti” (2018) is the lead track on Love is Dead, and right up there with “Gun”, “Lungs”, “Bury It”, “We Sink”, and “Never Ending Circles” — in my view actually better than all these gems. It pulls at the heart as Mayberry sings about kids scrawling their names on bathroom walls, a snapshot of youthful precariousness and dreams to leave a mature mark on the world. Which these kids will never do. For unspecified reasons they won’t see adulthood. It’s a bleak song filled with resignation, and I’ve no idea what drove Mayberry to write such lyrics. But the words and haunting melodies turned out to be just what I needed in “scoring” the novellas I was writing in the late summer and early fall of 2018.

In my Stranger Things fanfiction, Eleven’s son Mike Hopper has a condition that causes his body to age back and forth. It first happens in The New Generation, when he’s 15 ½ years old (in the year 2009); his body starts aging in the reverse direction until he becomes an infant, just as he came from the womb in 1994, now in the year 2025. Then he ages forward again, and by the year 2037, in World’s End, he is 12 years old for the third time. His mother at this point is 66, and barely sane from having watched her son degenerate backwards into a baby (expecting him to become fetal and die) and then back up again, having to raise him perpetually as a child with tormented memories of once being a teenager.

In writing the novellas I realized I wanted a theme song for Mike Hopper, something that captured his tragedy of living 43 years of life (1994-2037) without ever obtaining adulthood. It was handed to me on a silver platter as I was well into the writing of World’s End. I’d been meaning to listen to the new Chvrches album released in May, finally did so, and when I heard the lead track I sat at my desk stunned by the chorus:

I’ve been waiting for my whole life to grow old
And now we never will, never will…

Mayberry kept repeating the refrain, “And now we never will, never will,” as if worried I might miss what she was hitting me over the head with. Not a chance. Before the song ended, I had Mike Hopper’s theme song. It wasn’t just the lyrics, perfect as they are. “Graffiti’s” sound and melodies were exactly what evoked Mike Hopper’s tragedy. The synth-hooks made my heart ache, and I saw Mike Wheeler’s brave son doing what he could, vainly, to save the world and himself.

As if things couldn’t get any weirder, the video for “Graffiti” was released only two days after I finished writing World’s End (on October 9). The video shows a boy and a girl who are close friends — sharing a bike together, headphones together, everything together like dysfunctional loners — and the boy looks uncannily like Finn Wolfhard. More unnerving is how he and girl seem to be engaged in a suicide pact. They do everything as one, rise and tumble slowly in the air, with dreamy expressions that can be interpreted any number of ways. I see suicidal intentions, given the lyrics (about never growing old), though I’m also obviously projecting onto these kids Mike Hopper’s heartbreaking sacrifice in World’s End.

“Graffiti” is an important song for me, and a fitting exit to these music retrospectives. I hope you’ve enjoyed reading and listening, as much I have reflecting on the power of music.

 

Listen here, or better yet watch the video, and sing.

🎶

I’m writing to ask you, did you achieve all you wanted to do?
Before we were dragged up, something was different and nothing was new
How did you see me?
We didn’t know what we wanted to be
When did we move on?
I didn’t feel it, nobody told me

Time to kill
Was always an illusion
Time stood still
And now we never will, never will

We wrote our names along the bathroom walls
Graffitiing our hearts across the stalls
I’ve been waiting for my whole life to grow old
And now we never will, never will
And now we never will, never will
And now we never will, never will

Standing in streetlights, we didn’t know wrong, didn’t know right
Making a mess and running in circles, getting in fights
We were just kids then, we didn’t know how and didn’t know when
Taking our chances, calling it off and starting again

Time to kill
Was always an illusion
Time stood still
And now we never will, never will

We wrote our names along the bathroom walls
Graffitiing our hearts across the stalls
I’ve been waiting for my whole life to grow old
And now we never will, never will
And now we never will, never will
And now we never will, never will
And now we never will, never will

Never will
Never will

We wrote our names along the bathroom walls
Graffitiing our hearts across the stalls
I’ve been waiting for my whole life to grow old
And now we never will, never will
And now we never will, never will
And now we never will, never will
And now we never will, never will
And now we never will, never will

🎶

From the album Love is Dead, 2018.

Retrospective: State of Grace

I’m ducking for cover with this one. Granting the wide spectrum of my tastes, am I really including the gaudy pop star Taylor Swift in this scope of retrospectives? To the derision of many, I’m sure, yes. But bear with me. While there’s no denying that Swift represents the off-putting showy aspects of pop rock — glimmering outfits and troupe dancers, cheered by an embarrassing fanbase — there’s more to her than meets the eye. I found this out when I clicked on a youtube video of “22” in a friend’s Facebook feed, and got better than what I expected. Intrigued, I downloaded the album Red, listened to the whole thing, and from then on thought twice before dismissing musicians on the basis of who listens to them.

Red (2012) was swift’s fourth album, and her turning point as she began fusing country (the worst music on the planet) with alt rock, heartland rock, dubstep, and dance. The result was a texture that glowed with vital purpose. Gone were the sunny lyrics of her country efforts (don’t listen to any of her first three albums), and in their place narratives of brokenness and frustrated communication that yield something better. The texture wouldn’t last; in subsequent albums it gave way to pure pop and dance with little of Red‘s depth. But for a red moment in time, Taylor Swift was worthy of her accolades.

The lead song “State of Grace” was more than just worthy; it’s a slice of swirling perfection. “State of Grace” remains an unusual song for Swift, and she’s never tried anything like it since. I imagine she didn’t dare, as it would be like David Bowie trying to write another “Heroes”. Miracles come once. Swift’s miracle draws on alternative and post-punk influences, and the usual comparisons are U2’s “A Sort of Homecoming” and The Cranberries’ “Dreams”. Frankly I hear U2’s “Mercy” more than those, the throwaway song that was — for whatever insane reason — cut from How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb. But “State of Grace” isn’t mere recycling. It’s better than its influences, transcends them into a piece that spells a pivotal before and after moment leading to “brave wild love”.

Forced to see the world through a lens of pain and imperfection, and accepting her own shades of wrong, Swift obtains a state of grace — the “worthwhile fight” amounting to something genuinely “good and right and real”. She sings as if presenting a heavenly court case, howling passion, coming down at the right intimate moments, and then soaring upwards again. The pre-chorus, or lift, draws out each part at the end:

And I neverrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr
Saw you comi-i-i-i-i-ing
And I’ll neverrrrrrrrrrrrrr
Be the sa-a-a-a-ame

That pre-chorus is the essence of “State of Grace” and elevates it to the heights few songs obtain. Whoever entered Swift’s life impacted her like eschatology. The lift underscores the dramatic moment by drawing out each passionate line, as the troupe dancers supplement with background howls. It’s the best part of the song, but the whole thing is majestic.

So there you have it. My defense of Taylor Swift, or at least one of her albums, and its lead track which is — in all truthfulness — one of the best songs in pop history. I’ll stand by that forever.

 

Listen here and sing.

🎶

I’m walking fast through the traffic lights
Busy streets and busy lives
And all we know
Is touch and go
We are alone with our changing minds
We fall in love ’til it hurts or bleeds
Or fades in time

And I never
Saw you coming
And I’ll never
Be the same

You come around and the armor falls
Pierce the room like a cannon ball
Now all we know
Is don’t let go
We are alone, just you and me
Up in your room and our slates are clean
Just twin fire signs
Four blue eyes

So you were never a saint
And I loved in shades of wrong
We learn to live with the pain
Mosaic broken hearts
But this love is brave and wild

I never
Saw you coming
And I’ll never
Be the same

This is a state of grace
This is the worth while fight
Love is a ruthless game
Unless you play it good and right

These are the hands of fate
You’re my Achilles heel
This is the golden age of something good
And right and real

And I never
Saw you coming
And I’ll never
Be the same

I never
Saw you coming
And I’ll never
Be the same

This is a state of grace
This is the worth while fight
Love is a ruthless game
Unless you play it good and right

🎶

From the album Red, 2012.

Restrospective: Raconte-Moi une Histoire

M83 is the black sheep of the bands I’m retrospecting (aside from tomorrow’s, which is so off the board it will outrage some readers), and so I’m doubling down by choosing the blackest sheep of all the M83 tracks: “Raconte-Moi une Histoire”.

I try to like M83 more than they deserve, mostly on grounds of their associations. They’ve toured with Depeche Mode; taken inspiration from Pink Floyd and the Smashing Pumpkins. But their output betrays those influences superficially. M83’s music is the self-indulgent dream-pop of retro synths and ethereally melancholic vocals, and I find that sort of thing okay when I’m in the mood every sixty to ninety days… but it gets old really fucking fast.

There is something however about “Raconte-Moi une Histoire” (2011) that hits my sweet spot. As much an audio-narration as a song, it features a little girl who describes a frog — a “very special frog” — that triggers an LSD trip when you touch it: colors change, parents switch genders, everyone jumps into the streets and becomes friends, the “biggest group of friends the world has ever seen, jumping and laughing forever”. It’s an acid trip through the eyes of a child, a world devoid of conflict and pain, that fades into ethereal vocals.

Whether he intended it, or by fun accident, Anthony Gonzales finally wrote the quintessential M83 song. In “Raconte-Moi une Histoire” you can taste the dream and enter the story in a way music seldom allows. Gonzales should try these wacky experiments more often. Because let’s face it, M83 isn’t as revolutionary as they’re made out to be. A lot of their ambience sounds like it’s recycled from earlier works. Some of the hits from Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming — like “Midnight City”, pardon my blasphemy — drive me a bit nuts. Electronic music is tricky ground. At its best, it taps emotions that otherwise stay buried; all too easily it becomes redundantly bland and dispassionate. M83’s latest albums (Junk and DSVII) have been much the latter.

I keep listening anyway. A band that can craft songs like “We Own the Sky” and “Raconte-Moi une Histoire” have the potential for all sorts of surprises.

 

Listen here and enjoy the acid trip.

🎶

I heard about this frog
It’s a very tiny frog
But it’s also very special
You can only find it in the jungle
So far away from me
But if you find it and if you touch it
Your world can change forever

If you touch its skin
You can feel your body changing
And your vision also
And blue becomes red and red becomes blue
And your mommy suddenly becomes your daddy
And everything looks like a giant cupcake

And you keep laughing and laughing and laughing
Nothing is ever quite the same really
And after you finish laughing
It’s time to turn into a frog yourself
It’s very funny to be a frog
You can dive into the water
And cross the rivers and the oceans
And you can jump all the time and everywhere
Do you want to play with me?

We can be a whole group of friends
A whole group of frogs
Jumping into the streets
Jumping into the planet
Climbing up the buildings
Swimming in the lakes and in the bathtubs
We would be hundreds, thousands, millions
The biggest group of friends the world has ever seen
Jumping and laughing forever
It would be great, right?

🎶

From the album Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming, 2011.

Retrospective: I Found a Body

In the ’80s there was “Every Breath You Take”, and in the ’90s “One”. Everyone loved these tender romances, not realizing they aren’t tender romances at all. The Police hit is a creepy stalker song. The U2 ballad is a nasty conversation between two lovers who have been through so much conflict and grief that it spells the end of their relationship. And yet couples continue to play these songs at their weddings. No wonder there are so many divorces.

If there was a song like these in the aughties, I missed it. I would have probably missed the one from the twenty-tens if it hadn’t come from my home state: “I Found a Body” (2011) is by the New Hampshire indie band Tan Vampires, who got about as much recognition as Old Abram Brown, which is to say not nearly enough. Its lyrics sound romantic, but they subvert romance with a realistic portrayal of relationships, and suggest that happiness isn’t found with someone else, but in solitude. My kind of song really.

It’s a beautiful song, which is why it’s so deceptive. Like “Every Breath You Take” it’s infectious, and like “One” it’s melodically soothing. The lullaby starts on an electric guitar and then blooms into something grander, as it becomes supplemented with delicate percussion, soft trumpets, and — best of all — the eerie howls of the background vocals. For all the build-up, everything is kept wisely low-key to the end. It’s all too easy to wreck the mood in pieces like this by starting quiet and going thunder, but unless you’re Ike and Tina Turner covering “Proud Mary”, that’s a recipe for fail.

This is how lead singer Jake Mehrmann said he was trying to flip the sense of comfort in a song that sounds comforting:

Mehrmann: “Despite that ‘I Found a Body’ is a pretty song, it is, to me, still pretty dark. I’ve had people tell me they used it in weddings or that it’s their song with their partner. I’m always sort of like, ‘Um, do you actually know the lyrics?’ I guess it’s nice that people choose to take something positive from it and not just toss it onto some pile of things to despair about. The more unexpected and varied people’s reactions are the more rewarding the experience of sharing the music tends to be.”

Compare that to the statements of Sting and Bono:

Sting: “‘Every Breath You Take’ is a nasty little song. It’s about jealousy and surveillance and ownership. I think the ambiguity is intrinsic in the song however you treat it because the words are so sadistic. On one level, it’s a nice long song with the classic relative minor chords, and underneath there’s this distasteful character talking about watching every move. I enjoy that ambiguity. I watched Andy Gibb singing it with some girl on TV a couple of weeks ago, very loving, and totally misinterpreting it. I could still hear the words, which aren’t about love at all. I pissed myself laughing.”

Bono: “I’m disappointed when people hear ‘One’ as saying ‘we’ve got to carry each other’ rather than ‘we get to carry each other.’ Because it is resigned, really. It’s not: ‘Come on everybody, let’s vault over the wall.’ Like it or not, the only way out of here is if I give you a leg up the wall and you pull me after you. There’s something very unromantic about that. The song is a bit twisted, which is why I could never figure out why people want it at their weddings. I have certainly met a hundred people who’ve had it at their weddings. I tell them, ‘Are you mad? It’s about splitting up!'”

“I Found a Body” is every bit as good and subversive as what Sting and Bono came up with, and every bit as misunderstood. I only wish Tan Vampires were as widely celebrated as The Police and U2. They deserve to be.

 

Listen here and sing.

🎶

Sleep in your own bed tonight
Aren’t you sick of the fights
All the brave black eyes

There is no need for silence tonight
You can leave on the lights
And do what you like

Because I found a body to call my home
And dozens of roses left by the phone

So take off your own clothes tonight
Out of mind out of sight
Fading from my life

I found a body to call my home
And dozens of roses left by the phone
With all the little things that we’ve tried to feel less alone
There’s nothing about the world that any of us have learned to change
We still know nothing

So what if I’m wrong and you’re right
And I miss you tonight
Like I think I might

If all’s still and silent tonight
It’s an awful insight
Into both our lives

I found a body to call my home
And dozens of roses left by the phone
With all the little things that we’ve tried to feel less alone
There’s nothing about the world that any of us have learned to change
We still know nothing

🎶

From the album For Physical Fitness, 2011.

Retrospective: Mountain Lions

One thing became clear to me in the aughties: the best music was buried in obscurity. And there was plenty of it, if you knew where to look. In one case I didn’t have to look far. One of my co-workers at the Nashua Public Library, Carson Lund, had his own indie band. He was the lead vocalist and piano/keyboard player for Old Abram Brown, a band that authored four albums between 2009-15. Check out that link; you can listen to the entire albums for free, and also buy any of them to support the band.

Of the four albums, the sophomore Restless Ghosts (2010) is the strongest. There are three mighty tracks in particular — “Little Feet”, “Tides”, and “Mountain Lions” — and I’m choosing “Mountain Lions” for today’s retrospection. This song was actually first released on Alive in Winter (2009), but rerecorded for the sophomore album with more oomph and assertive keyboards.

I remember when Carson told me that the song was inspired by a tragedy suffered by one of the band members: a Colorado mountain lion ate his pet. If something that like that had happened to my basset hound when I was a teen, it would have scarred me for life. And if I’d been right there when it happened… Jesus.

The refrain “Why does it have to cost so much to die?” betrays the obvious youthful pain, but it also resonates at this moment, now, during a pandemic. Those bump-covered spheres that fill up the lungs act according to a nature as savage as the wildest cougar. I remember this song also hit me personally when Restless Ghosts was released in October 2010, a month after my father died. (I’d not yet heard Alive in Winter, on which the song first appeared.) Yes, this is a song about a pet, for Christ’s sake, but listen to it. The melodies swell with existential suggestion; the horns come in, working wonders; and Carson’s vocals create a landscape of something more encompassing than literal imagery.

Much of the song resists a strict commentary anyway. Carson admitted the lyrics were a bit incoherent, perhaps, if I stabbed a guess, because that’s what sudden death does to us — leaving us to fumble for the meaning of a shredded life. This is my favorite bit, though I can’t make full sense of it either:

Kickin’ the leaves
Cuz the graveyard don’t talk
We swallow our prey
I know it’s not that hard
Descended to the bedrock

What, so every part of nature, including us, devours what it needs, and every part is bound for the soil anyway, where there’s nothing but a dark existential silence? I’m reading too much into it, no doubt.

Like the other tracks on Restless Ghosts, “Mountain Lions”, blends a bit of everything — indie, folk, alternative, even blues —  to produce a sound that’s both understated and grand. Old Abram Brown never achieved fame, but I tell you, they are better than overplayed bands like Coldplay and REM.

 

Listen here and sing.

🎶

Mountains lions, they ate my dog and why?
Why’s it have to cost so much to die?
Civil man with civil hands was awed
As the din of the sora went

Crooked and a crowded room
Miniatures by a quilted moon
They don’t see the snow
That’s covering the cul-de-sac road

Oh, they’d go far
And gather in the dark
And slide on the wood
To find a place to walk
And why not stay?
I know it won’t be long
Descended to the bedrock

Mountain lions, they ate my dog and why?
Why’s it have to cost so much to die?
Civil man with civil hands was awed
As the din of the sora went

Oh, they’d go far
And find a place to stop
Kickin’ the leaves
Cuz the graveyard don’t talk
We swallow our prey
I know it’s not that hard
Descended to the bedrock

Mountain lions, they ate my dog and why?
Why’s it have to cost so much to die?

🎶

From the album Restless Ghosts, 2010.