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Music for everyday: A retrospective glance at two indie classics

Mac Hendrickson | Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Let’s face it. For our generation, music is a big deal. Forty years ago, music was a tool for both social change and dancing, but it remained in a glass box. For the youth of 2012, music is a living essential. Popular music has invaded our ears, our alarm clocks, our cell phone ringtones, our movies, our sports and our parties. We listen while we walk, run, read and sleep. While it is an indication of identity, it also recreates it. We learn from our music as much as we relate to it.

Thus, what we listen to matters more than it ever has before. The lyrical and ideological content of music is a great influence on our mental diet. Millionaires without high school degrees preaching on stage about foreign policy are easy targets for the high-minded. Why should we listen to them? These musicians want us to believe they know what they are talking about and their opinions matter. We can laugh all we want, but they are half-correct. Many claim music icons’ opinions do not matter. These people are also half-correct.

Geniuses or not, what our musicians write songs about matters. A lot. Unfortunately, megaphones are not merit-based. The loudest man in the room is rarely the smartest. Once musicians win our hearts, our minds are an easy follow-up victory. Whether we know it or not, these artists are in our ears everyday teaching us how to approach life.

So let me suggest two albums for your diet. The Dismemberment Plan’s “Emergency and I” and Animal Collective’s “Merriweather Post Pavilion” were released 10 years apart, in 1999 and 2009, respectively. They both were something of an indie “Thriller,” a groundbreaking effort that summed up an era. Both have either aged wonderfully or have been completely forgotten, depending on whom you talk to. Anyone who finds this article convincing in the least will be forced to listen via iTunes or Spotify as “Emergency and I” is currently out of print. But who buys CDs today anyway?

This essay is not concerned with how great or horrible these albums may or may not be. It is concerned rather with a subtle characteristic these albums share. They are heavily concerned with how to inventively engage the working week. More specifically, they detail the pains, pleasures and questions of youth first encountering the material world and their potential for happiness. It’s hippie music for the white-collar employee. A how-to manual for living with creativity in a system without.

“My Girls,” the second track of “Pavilion” is the one song you have heard if you have heard any Animal Collective. Musically, it’s repetitive and heart-wrenchingly melodious. Synth waterfall builds to a boom-snap drum pattern and some of Animal Collective’s best Beach Boys mimicking. The guy on the MPC definitely knows what he is doing.

Lyrically, the song could not be simpler. Noah Lennox, also known as Panda Bear, calls out his humble hopes for a happy existence. “I don’t mean to seem like I care about material things or my social status / I just want four walls and adobe slabs for my girls…” What are adobe slabs? Who knows? But Lennox makes them seem as essential as plumbing. The song, released just four months after one of the most disenchanting economic downturns in United States history, is an homage to the humble existence within reach, an homage to simple happiness.

Animal Collective released “Pavilion” to underground hype and expectation that would make the Strokes jealous. Within weeks of its January release, it was already being hailed as one of the year’s best. In May, they appeared on David Letterman’s show to perform “Summertime Clothes.” Letterman jokingly referenced the album artwork’s resemblance to wallpaper, which further evidences the normality of the concept. Though to many it seemed as if the group had come out of left field, Animal Collective had been recording its strange tribal melodies since 1999, and “Pavilion” was something of a summation of the band’s potential. Produced by hip-hop guru Ben Allen, the album was by far Animal Collective’s sharpest and most approachable record to date.

The album’s subject matter accounts significantly for its massive palpability. The songs deal with the everyday in a creative manner. “In the Flowers” is a meditation on transcendence and longing but ends in a bedroom. “Summertime Clothes” is an upbeat vignette with Springsteen-esque summer restlessness. “Also Frightened” is a reflection on death and dreaming, while “Lion in a Coma” bursts with sexual frustrations. “This wilderness up in my head … This wilderness needs to get right out of my clothes and get into my bedroom.” The boys of the Collective are drawing a bridge between the elite expectations of living a creative and inspired life and the demands of modern America.

“Emergency and I” deals with a slightly younger modern man, perhaps one just emerging from an unproductive college career. The album is jam-packed with alienation and frustration, the sort of “what-do-I-do-now” dilemma that drove Dustin Hoffman into Mrs. Robinson’s bed.

“A Life of Possibilities” is a second-person portrait of a confused young man whose life lies before him. “It’s endless / It’s map-less / No compass / No North Star.” “Memory Machine” dreams of a world where all labor and pain has been eliminated, but from the sound of it, something wouldn’t quite work there. The almost danceable grunge track “What Do You Want Me to Say?” might sound like a “pains of being famous” track if anyone actually did know who The Dismemberment Plan is. Instead, it’s a consideration of the frustrating limitations of language. It also contains the album’s defining lyric. “I lost my membership card to the human race / So don’t forget the face / ‘Cause I know that I do belong here.” And in “The City,” lead singer Travis Morrison laments his friend’s departure from the city and from his life. The album ends with “Back and Forth,” a poetic and complex love song that sounds more like Allen Ginsberg than anything else from 1999.

The album was released to general critical appraisal and little commercial success. It was recorded with Interscope funds, but released under DeSoto. Interscope dropped them and several other acts during a merger. Sonically, the album is difficult to approach, with occasional screeching guitars, non-standard song formats and experimental time signatures. Some tracks are easier than others, but on the whole, getting through the album can seem as challenging as making your way through “The Metamorphosis.” But it’s also as rewarding.

The masterpiece of “Emergency and I” is “You are Invited,” a mid-album track that begins and ends with an 808 drum pattern that has the complexity of a game of tic-tac-toe. The half-spoken verses tell the strange story of a mysterious invitation and the narrator’s reaction to it. “But it said / You are invited / By anyone to do anything…” As the song progresses, the narrator slowly discovers his freedom. The song is an invitation to live, to engage. At the end, the narrator shares the invitation with a forlorn friend, but doesn’t convince the listener that he has learned anything. Perhaps his freedom has crippled him. Perhaps he simply needs more time to explore. If you decide to listen to it more than once, it will probably change your outlook on life. But as for much of The Dismemberment Plan’s catalogue, a second listen is a tough sell.

Both bands had the same goal with their respective albums. They wanted to bring creative style to normal subjects, the way Joyce brought modernity to Leopold Bloom. As 2012 draws to a close and many of us prepare to enter the real world, we will undoubtedly turn to our music for inspiration and refuge. And both of these albums make terrific havens.

Animal Collective, Merriweather Post Pavilion – Domino 2009

The Dismemberment Plan, Emergency and I – DeSoto 1999