You are correct: this video post is a few days late. You are correct: William S. Burroughs isn’t necessarily a musician (although he did release a series of spoken word style albums over the years). BUT you are dreadfully wrong in finding this post too little too late, if I may be so cliche. This is the all-knowing W.S. Burroughs, and his wry words of wisdom, no matter what season, day, or hour, require your full attention. Be thankful for Mr. Burroughs.
“When you get to the top of a mountain, keep climbing.”
Paul roused me from my slumber saying we had to get going in order to beat the weekend rush. We quickly tore down camp and returned to the crossroads where we decided to head up the path leading to the mountain’s peak. I struggled the first hour of hiking, plodding a distance behind Paul from the lack of both a good night’s sleep and a fresh cup of morning coffee. When we came upon a stream, we refilled our water bottles and I splashed my face awake. Still needing a kick in my step, I pulled out my i-Pod and put the Pennywise discography on random. There’s no point in picking one particular album with Pennywise: all their songs over the past 20 years feature the same up-tempo beat, grinding guitars, and political fervor. The relentless tempo kept my feet moving at a pace up to Paul’s standards, and I nipped at his heels for the next hour.
“Go Straight Ahead – not a bad anthem when hiking up a mountain:
As we came around an upward curve in the path, we caught sight of a herd of elk sunning along the mountainside. The elken flock seemed to stretch all the way down to the forest edge. Paul pulled out his binoculars and counted 44 elk in all. Some roamed around grazing on the mountain grass, others bathed in the sun’s rays, while others tended to their calves stumbling about on fresh legs. I pulled out my camera and began snapping photos of the amazing mountainside scene when the “battery low” light began blinking and the camera refused to take anymore pictures. This was a major problem with the awe-inspiring mountain top scenery still ahead.
One of my final pictures before my camera died; at least I captured this scene.
We sat down for about 20 minutes, admiring the elk at home in their natural Eden. To see such a large group of animals this high up on the mountain was truly astounding. Paul told me he had climbed Long’s Peak many times and had never seen anything like what we saw that afternoon.
With the day quickly passing us by, we continued on our climb, eventually approaching a large rock field. The cool wind seemed to pick up. With the stones becoming larger, we were no longer hiking but hopping across the taller rocks. The path disappeared and soon we were following the mini-rock totems set up to signify the right direction. The rock field gave way to a camping area, furnished with toilets and all. Each camping area featured a rock barricade reminding me of the snow forts my brothers and I built as kids. I decided the barriers must be there to keep those pesky, toe eating marmot away.
"Foolish kids! Snow walls and moon boots can't keep me from feasting on your tootsies!"
When we neared the central area, Paul went to take his morning crap in the man-made stall. I sat down on a large rock and began to read more out of Dharma Bums. Just when I reached the section where Japhy and Ray (Jack) start their hike, a hippie woman sat next to me and began talking at me.
“So, you climbing the entire way?” I tried acting like I didn’t hear her.
“How rude?” I thought. “Can’t she see that I’m reading?”
The last thing I wanted to do was chit-chat with a stranger. “Hey, are you climbing the entire way?” she reiterated. I couldn’t deny her persistence.
Seeing this as a sign someone wanted to talk to her, she began rambling about how her friends were climbing the rest of the way, but she was going to hang out here in the camp area all day until they returned. She went on to say that the climb wasn’t worth the effort. “The hike is straight up from here on out, and no one returns from it with a smile on their face. Believe me, I’ve been watching painful faces coming back through here all morning.”
Paul rescued me, but the woman’s soothsayer-like tale of worn down hikers had me concerned. Climbing the Sphinx was exhausting, but unlike her story of eminent exhaustion, we climbed back down better than we arrived.
We continued on our way, heading upward, hopping stone to stone, with the stones getting larger and larger and the leaps getting more and more difficult. Coming over a rock mound, we discovered an archway at the top of a steep hill of boulders in the distance. I cautiously stepped from rock to rock in my worn down Nike high-tops, while Paul bounced off ahead of me like a mountain goat. Every few minutes he would look back at me, annoyed by my dainty pace, but I didn’t care. I twist my ankle once a week playing basketball; God knows what a careless step in a boulder field would do to me.
To add to my lumbering pace, the higher we got, the harder it became to breathe. The closer I got to the arch, the more often I had to stop to catch my breath. I didn’t remember having this much difficulty breathing on the Sphnix – obviously we were already at a higher altitude. In the back of my mind, I wondered if our smoking exploits had been a bad idea on the eve of our climb into the stratosphere. “But then again,” I thought to myself,” Carmello Anthony and Allen Iverson play in Denver’s thin air nightly, and they are the cannabis kings of the court.”
"Maybe that pregame joint wasn't such a good idea."
At one point I stopped and sat down, finishing off the remainder of my water while staring off into the wall of rocks that still lay ahead. I could no longer see Paul, who I guessed had already reached the archway. I imagined him sitting there in the shade while the sun continued scorching my shiny head. The sun sat five feet above my shoulders – if I were Icarus my wings would have melted hours ago.
I decided I couldn’t keep Paul waiting longer. I had to toughen up. I had to fight through the burning in my lungs and move beyond the sight of the searing rays. I began leaping carelessly up the side of the rock hill, two boulders at a time, not stopping, pushing through the stitch building in my side. When my hamstring began to act up again, I crouched and walked on all fours, having flashbacks of my high school football coach, Mr. Troug, screaming at me in his booming growl, “Bear crawl damn it!”
Eventually my upper body was doing all the work, gripping, clawing, pulling, relentlessly grasping for the next rock in my path. I wasn’t going to let anything stall me at this point. I could relish the pain later. I had to reach that shady arch: dead or alive. Higher and higher, aching, burning, heaving, closer and closer, slipping, scraping, sweating, aching…
I pulled myself over the final boulder and was almost knocked backward by both the burst of artic wind rushing through the archway and the magnitude of the enormous mountainscape before me. The experience reminded me of the final scene in “Vanilla Sky” when Tom Cruise sprints to the edge of the building and is suddenly overwhelmed by his surroundings: the blowing wind and the cityscape below.
A cool version of the scene set to the music of Sigur Ros:
All the pain I felt only seconds before suddenly washed away. I stood and let the mountain air wash over me for the first time since the Sphinx.
I glanced down to see Paul leaning against a ledge nearby, but I remained in that spot for several minutes staring out into the vast valley below. Glistening lakes speckled the mountainside and evergreens swayed below, tickling the mountain’s feet.
Fortunately, my camera found the energy to take a few more pictures.
Eventually I slid down next to Paul, but we didn’t exchange words. I could see why Paul loved this mountain so much, despite all its touristy flaws. I was visiting his sanctuary, and for that moment, everything in the world seemed to make sense.
My solace was broken when I noticed Paul rolling a pebble between his fingers as he looked out toward the scenery. I glanced down and realized it wasn’t a stone at all, but a small brown nugget resembling a rabbit dropping. I didn’t say a word and contained my laugher as he continued fingering the turd. About 30 seconds later, Paul looked down at his toy and had the sudden realization he had been caressing poop in his hands for the past few minutes.
“Fuck man! I was playing with marmot shit and I didn’t even know it!” He tossed the feces over the edge, and I watched the droplet disappear into the great unknown.
One marmot's shit is another man's treasure.
Just as I was beginning to feel relaxed, he told me he was returning to the path. Since I didn’t feel up to it yet, I told him I’d catch up. He seemed to understand and disappeared around the mountain ledge. I sat there for a while, wondering if continuing my climb would be worth it. Could it get much better than what I was looking at now? The voice of the hippie woman kept seeping into my brain. “The climb is straight up from here on out…” Feeling somewhat rejuvenated, I thought I’d give the remainder of the climb a chance. It couldn’t get much worse.
The hike turned into a narrow mountain path: one side rock, the other a drop off. I tiptoed carefully, trying not to look down but still attempting to find my next foothold. Every few minutes a group of people would emerge from the rocks ahead and I’d have to climb up out of their way so they could pass. I began to notice that every person that returned bared the same pained look. These people didn’t look enlightened by nature – they looked like they’d just had a root canal. The voice of the hippie woman continued whispering in the wind “…no one returns from the peak with a smile on their face.”
Coming around a mass of rocks jutting out of the side of the incline I could see Paul up ahead taking a break, sitting on a rock and eating beef jerky. When he saw me far behind, he waved. I looked up above him to see that he was about to climb the worst incline we’d faced all day, almost straight up. It was then that I realized I didn’t want to go any further. I felt guilty leaving the rest of the climb to Paul, but I didn’t see any point in finishing the hike. I’d found what I was looking for, and from what I had gathered, no one returned from the top uplifted by nature’s beauty. I yelled to him. “Paul! I’m just going to wait here!” He nodded, although I’m not sure if he heard me. I knew he probably saw me as a quitter, but I didn’t care at the moment.
I moved up and away from the path to find some privacy. After putting on my earbuds and cueing up Bon Iver’s “For Emma, Forever Ago”, I pulled out Dharma Bums. I thought about how all my middle school reading teachers used to profess the importance of finding a comfortable place to read. Looking out onto my surroundings, I decided Mrs. Jensen would be proud of my “special reading place”.
Along with my “special reading music”:
I sat there reading for an hour or more, and when Japhy and Ray neared the top, the narrative felt eerily similar to my experiences that afternoon.
Soon Japhy was a whole football field, a hundred yards ahead of me, getting smaller. “How can I keep up with a maniac like that?” but with nutty desperation I followed him. Finally I came to a kind of ledge where I could sit at a level angle instead of having to cling not to slip, and I nudged my whole body inside the ledge just to hold me there tight, so the wind would not dislodge me, and I looked down and around and I had had it. “I’m staying here!” I yelled to Japhy.
No longer did I feel bad for not finishing the climb. I had already found what I was looking for on this hike, on this mountainside, on this road trip. Everything else from this point on would just be the an added bonus. I felt comfort in my surroundings, the natural beauty around me, reading on as Kerouac reassured me that all was right in the world:
“…when Japhy gets to the top of that crag he will keep climbing, the way the wind’s blowing. Well this old philosopher is staying right here. Besides, rest and be kind, you don’t have to prove anything.”
“What the hell are you doing Sufjan?!” This is a statement I made upon listening to his latest album “Age of ADZ” for the first time: his banjos replaced by synths, his acoustic finger picking transformed into an overtly processed electric guitar played through a multitude of effects pedals, his religiously inspired lyrics of hope turned apocalyptic and ominous. Had Sufjan lost his mind? The three albums released this year (yes, three!) have been all over the place: “BQE” – an ode to an interstate, “All Delighted People” – an EP response to Simon and Garfunkel’s “The Sound of Silence”, and now “Age of ADZ” – a bio-album on the late-great schizophrenic artist, Royal Robertson. It seems Sufjan has ditched his 50 states project for the moment in preference to albums focused on obscure, darker subject matter.
Robertson’s story is one of legends: a self-proclaimed prophet who, after 20 years of marriage, chose his art over his wife and children. Living the remainder of his life in a secluded trailer, Roberston drew and painted the images found within his hallucinatory visions of space travel and the end of all mankind at the hand of aliens. While Sufjan’s 50 states albums are filled with songs that are either celebratory or bittersweet, “ADZ” is, as you can probably imagine, pretty depressing.
But I’d be fooling you if I said this was an album solely about Roberston and his art. In truth, “ADZ” is Sufjan’s most autobiographical album to date. In the past, people have questioned whether the tales shared in classics like “Romulus” and “Casimir Palaski Day” were works of fiction or based on real life experiences, but there is no doubt that the pain expressed on “ADZ” is coming straight from Sufjan’s heart. In the same way Roberston chose his art over his wife and children, Sufjan recently went through a difficult break-up which I’m venturing to guess may have been due in part to his obsession with his own art (did I mention he came out with three albums this year?). I’m not just jumping to conclusions here; on “The Impossible Soul”, a song Sufjan himself described as a 25-minute-psycho-analysis, we hear the haunting female voice of Shara Doren (My Brightest Diamond) pleading “Don’t be distracted, don’t be distracted! Do you want to be alone?” to which Sufjan replies “NO I DON’T WANT TO FEEL PAIN!” Sufjan was drawn to Robertson for more reasons than his art; their stories seem parallel at times.
Here’s the first 12 minutes of the 25 minute song. The female pleading comes in at the four minute mark while the auto-tune makes its appearance 10 minutes in:
Even Sufjan’s signature sound has taken a turn for the frantic, each song crammed with clamorous, processed drum tracks, and a mixture of nondescript squeaking-buzzing-static that thrives from one song to the next. It is noise; pure and simple, and it can be a bit overpowering at times. He has talked in interviews about his experimentation with drum machines and synths, and it sounds like “ADZ” is his vehicle for displaying some of his most alarming music yet. The viscous atmosphere of racket can be as overwhelming as the insides of a fully-operating auto-manufacture plant. At one point he even goes so far as to insert an auto-tuned voice (“Impossible Soul” again), but in Sufjan’s hands, the once annoying musical crutch takes on a feeling of disconnect with mankind.
As if the mechanical malfunctioning isn’t enough, Sufjan pairs it with an over-the-top, John Williams-style orchestra, backed up by a choir of angelic female voices. The results are strange, science fiction style arrangements that emulate Royal Roberton’s art style. His drawings, filled with futuristic imagery, are done in a cartoony, comic book style, and the same can be said about Sufjan’s travel into the world of synth. Yes, it’s fantastical and other-worldly, but it’s also a caricature of a space-age sound, like something from a demented Disney film.
Tell me we’re supposed to take the title track as a serious attempt at apocalyptic music; try convincing me:
The songs on “ADZ” remind me of a lot of the literature of Kurt Vonnegut, a strange declaration, I’m sure. Vonnegut is often referenced as a “science fiction” author, but this label doesn’t sit well with me. Yes, Vonnegut often wrote of time travel, aliens, and life on other planets, but it’s not done in the same way a Phillip K. Dick or a Ray Bradbury would approach it. He isn’t writing of these places and events to entertain nor is he trying to convey them with realism. Instead, he’s using them as a vehicle for conveying a larger message about humanity. The songs on “ADZ” are done in such an over-the-top space-age motif that it’s difficult to take them serious, which in the end is the point. On surface it’s an album of robot take-over and the arrival of Judgment Day, but any able-minded person knows that Sufjan is talking about the demons within his soul, battling it out, not of UFOs and killer volcanoes.
One of the biggest battles is seen in “Vesuvius”, a musical version of “Joe Vs. The Volcano” (also my favorite track on the album):
After a few listens, my once bewilderment was replaced with a reaffirmed reverence for Sufjan and his ability to create albums that convey not only a tone but also a setting. With his proclivity for writing thematic opuses, “Age of ADZ” is just one more chapter in his series of complete works of art. It’s obvious the man understands the elements that make a grand album, which could explain why it took him so long to release another one after “Come On Hear the Illinoise”. At the same time, I can’t place this album in the same pantheon as “Seven Swans” and “Greetings From Lake Michigan”. It’s a great; don’t hear me wrong here, but with all the noise, something gets lost in the tracks. Deep beneath the bedlam you can hear a great song, and you get why Sufjan made it such a raucous, melo-dramatic affair, but part of you will always be left wishing for more of those cornerstone classics that past albums have had.
“I Walked”: another instant classic from the album. No banjos, just classic 80s synth:
It’s Colorado rocky mountain high I’ve seen it rainin’ fire in the sky Friends around the campfire and everybody’s high Rocky mountain high
“Rocky Mountain High” John Denver
The next morning all of us were hurting. We didn’t start dragging around the motel room until 10 a.m, which gave us about an hour to shower and pack up. My prospects of getting in the shower were slim, so I pulled on my swim trunks and stumbled out into the morning glare. After exploring the motel, I found the quaint little 10 x 10 swimming pool. Without hesitation I tossed my dirty shirt onto the fence and dove in. Instantly the hangover washed away as the chilling water rushed over my achy body. As a lifeguard (many, many years ago) I learned the power a morning swim can have over a drink related headache. Not only did I eliminate my weary head, but I got a quick chlorine bath in the process (my friend Tony takes these exclusively).
Tony preparing for his morning bath.
I swam a couple mini-laps, kick-starting the blood flow in my sore muscles and joints. Refreshed and rejuvenated, I jumped out and let the air dry me as I walked back to the room. On the way I passed a gorgeous woman with jet black hair hanging down to her curvy waist. Her dark almond shaped eyes glanced at me, a dripping mess clomping down the sidewalk. Once I reached our room, I glanced back to her pushing a cart filled with towels – she was the cleaning lady.
“Hey guys, the cleaning lady is hot!” I announced upon entering the room. They chuckled and casually returned to their packing. In fear of irritating the rapidly approaching hot cleaning lady, I tried hurrying up the process making comments like “We’d better get going” and “They might charge us extra if we aren’t out by eleven.” When we finally straggled out, she rolled up to our door, looking annoyed. I gave her a big dimply smile, but she didn’t share the sentiment.
Probably the most American picture ever taken.
John and Tif decided to follow us up the scenic route to Long’s Peak (the mountain Paul and I would be climbing that afternoon). They contemplated pushing back their biker road trip a few days to hike with us, but based on the look of the hung-over couple, I doubted they’d be joining us.
When we reached Lyons, we stopped at a coffee shop to get breakfast and of course feed my desperate thirst for coffee. Armed with a Grande Americano, I noticed an internet ready computer in the back corner. I realized I hadn’t been on the internet for over a week, a fact that would usually drive the web junky in me insane. But lost in the joy of the wild, I completely lost track of my life in the digital world. This of course didn’t keep me from getting online for a few minutes; I hadn’t completely weaned myself from web’s teat.
With tummies full and caffeine rushing through my veins we set out for Long’s Peak, traveling up the winding road lined with signs marking it as Roosevelt National Forest. I wondered if my old fave FDR was responsible for the grandeur or if my new hero Teddy had anything to do with it.
WE pulled into the Long’s Peak entry and soon after discovered a parking lot filled to the brim with Outback station wagons and Land Rovers. Earlier in the morning Paul expressed his concern about the amount of people out on the weekend, and he had been correct. Our hiking experience wouldn’t be as intimate as the Sphinx.
We began filling our packs once again and made sure to include the Cliff Bars we bought at Target. Paul insisted we buy the high priced granola bars that I’d never tasted before. Paul promised they’d be worth every penny. Plus, in a recent SPIN article, Robin Pecknold of the Fleet Foxes said he wouldn’t sell any of their music for commercial use, unless it was for Cliff Bar.
While stuffing my pillow into the pack, Jon Jon approached nervously.
“Hey Andy,” he whispered. “I’ve got something for you.” He stuck out his hand and dropped a little self-rolled cigarette into my palm. “Since I’m not climbing, smoke that for me when you reach the top.” Smoking amidst the thin air of a mountain top didn’t sound very enticing, but I nodded and held the wad of paper awkwardly in my hand.
“Put it somewhere safe.” Having little experience with a hand-made cigarette, I put it into my pants pocket. Upon seeing this Jon gave me a nudge and yelled in a low voice, “I said put it somewhere safe! Here, I’ll give it to Paul.” I handed it back over to him like a scolded child and watched him give it to Paul, who placed it into an Advil bottle, then into his pack. This surprised me. To my knowledge, Paul hadn’t smoked since high school, so I figured he’d turn down the offer. My experiences were also few and far between.
Once we had all our gear packed, we said our goodbyes to Jon and Tif, then wished them good luck on their bike trip north. With memories of Montana still fresh in my mind, part of me wished were joining them. Around 2:30 they rumbled off into the distance and we began our climb. As we made the ascension, we found ourselves surrounded by other hikers: healthy old people, hippie youth, and even church-going families. Everyone was cordial and friendly, but our climb felt far removed from the journey into nature I anticipated. The peak was obviously a big draw for the area with fences alongside the path, stone stairs on steep inclines, and sitting areas every few minutes. Even when I did see beautiful waterfalls and rock formations, it seemed like the fake scenery you’d see at an amusement park.
After reaching the top of the tree line, the path split into three options. We decided to set up camp quick, and then explore one of the paths. We walked back into the woods and found a nice flat space to throw up the tent. We had it assembled in minutes and rushed back to the path. The far left path was the only one Paul had never been on, so we decided to give it a try.
The walk wasn’t very exciting, although I did enjoy the constant appearance of animals. Chipmunks and marmots skittered across the path every couple minutes and they didn’t seem scared in the least of our approach. An hour into our hike, we began to realize the path didn’t lead to much and headed back to camp before sun down.
At camp, we both grabbed our books, him Harry Potter, me Kerouac (you decide who is the douche). We headed into different directions, finding our own personal reading solitude. I made my first venture into The Dharma Bums and quickly found myself once again engrossed in Kerouac’s words. (I still prefer the depressed, self deprecating Jack of On the Road over the happy-Buddhist-Zen-mad-man of Dharma Bums).
With our reading light setting behind the mountains, we began to gather firewood and lit the kindling. Paul soon had the fire raging, so I put a couple soup cans into the red coals, letting the flames lick the edges of the Chunky soup, performing cunnalingus on Donavan McNabb’s smiling mother.
"Keep toking that fire boys!"
Paul broke me from my soup can fantasy, asking, “Soooo, you want to smoke Jon’s little gift?” It felt like we were teenagers trying beer for the first time, a combination of curiosity and guilt mixing in our jerky filled stomachs. I thought it over for a while, and finally came to the realization: why not? How many times in my life would I be sitting on a mountainside with Paul and a little jay of joy.
With only matches to light the cig, Paul unsuccessfully lit it several times before finally succeeding. Sitting next to the fire, we began trading drags from the little roach. When there no longer remained paper to hold onto, Paul threw the remainder into the fire and awaited the affects of Jon’s little gift. The few times I’ve smoked I’ve had the opposite affect from the lethargic, slothful interpretation you see in the movies. Instead, I become overtly energetic, bouncing off the walls and spouting random, moronic thoughts.
I grabbed the soup from the fire with my BloodRayne beanie/oven mitt and handed one to Paul and then grab one for myself. I sprawled back onto a rock and stared into the night sky. The glistening lights above seemed to be smiling down upon us. I sat up for a moment and opened up my can of soup to enjoy the medley of steak and potatoes. Out of no where, Paul broke the silence muttering, “Wouldn’t it be crazy if Bono suddenly floated down from above, singing ‘In the Name of Love’?”
“What?” I asked. This surprised me. Paul despises U2. He had to be in another state of mind to be dreaming of Bono.
“Yeah, like Bono just floats down, and then Edge emerges from the trees playing guitar.” I giggled at his idea, and added, “Yeah, and then the bears and marmots come out of the trees singing along to the chorus.” Caught up in our imaginings, I stood up and yodeled into the night sky, “In the name of love, what more in the name of love!” We both chuckled at the echo of my howling voice.
I then had a sudden flashback to childhood, remembering when The Muppets performed Buffalo Springfield’s “For What It’s Worth”. “Dude, dude! I’ve got it! What if Bono and Edge were on the Muppets, and it was like a bunch of puppet bears singing along.”
Paul looked confused (in hindsight, he might have just been stuck in a stupor). “And then like Fozzie bear comes in and ruins everything yelling ‘Wok ka Wok ka? Eh? Paul?” He stared at me glossy eyed. I lost him with my random Muppet reference, but didn’t care, thinking back to the classic Muppet scene, hunters and all. I began pacing around the fire, continuing my random ramblings while Paul just kind of lifelessly laid there, much like the rock beneath his head. I looked down at him and asked, “Are you feeling it already?”
“Yeh,” he mumbled. “Aren’t you?”
Feeling chock full energy, I should have known the affects had taken over, but for some reason I was convinced I remained unaffected. “No dude, this sucks.” I then continued rambling – talking about what a strange word “pertinent” is, questioning where soup was invented, and spouting off a jumbled mess of ideas for the upcoming Repeater and the Wolf album. Paul finally broke my stream of consciousness, asking, “Aren’t you tired?”
“No!” I responded.
“Well, I’m ready to crash,” he said, closing his eyes.
“Um…okay.” I looked at the time on my i-Pod, and realized it had already reached midnight. The night had flown by us, lost in our fire side reverie. I crawled into the tent and laid back, trying to find the calming solace Paul was feeling. Unfortunately, my crazy legs continued kicking and my brain couldn’t stop wondering where marmots sleep at night.
To help ease my mile-a-minute mind, I put on my ear buds and began listening to some Opie and Anthony, letting their conversation occupy my brain. I don’t remember much of the show I listened to, but O and A have never seemed quite as funny as they did that night on top of Long’s Peak. I’m not sure what time I finally went to bed, but the next morning Paul complained that he could hear my maniacal giggling into the early hours of the morning.
"To answer your question, marmots sleep where ever the hell they want. Now go to sleep before I eat your toes you giggle-y fuck."
Trunks Carter sent me this old clip, and I’m sure it’s made the rounds, but I couldn’t resist posting it on here. It’s an irresistible melody; I can’t deny. I swear up-and-down that some early 90s ska band covered this song (Skankin’ Pickle? Pilfers? VooDoo GlowSkulls?), but I can’t seem to find any evidence of this.
The Thermals “Personal Life” [Kill Rock Stars; 2010]
“Now We Can See”: damn is that a great album. This 2009 release from The Thermals is filled with enticing melodies of rebirth, alcoholism, and letting go all conveyed through the lens of Darwin’s evolution. I ranked it #6 on my “Best Albums of 2009” list, and its staying power is made evident each time I find myself returning to it amidst the downpour of amazing albums in 2010 (more on that in December…). Unfortunately, “Now We Can See” never got the credit it deserved from most major music journalists. Instead of deeming it a miracle that the band could follow up their modern classic “The Body, The Blood, The Machine” with another blistering set of songs, most reviews responded to “Now We Can See” with a yawning “Oh, these guys are still good…”.
Which leaves me wondering if a band is at a fault when they release great album after great album. It’s what I’d like to refer as Tim Duncan Syndrome – after winning back-to-back Most Valuable Player awards in 2002 and 2003, Duncan never received the award again. A look at his career stats shows that there was never a fall off in his nightly performances through most of the decade, a sustenance that led Charles Barkley to nickname him “Groundhog Day”. Despite this perpetual dominance in the paint that drove the Spurs to four NBA titles, it seems journalists became bored with his unyielding talent and decided to award the player of the moment each year (how many titles did Steve Nash win again?).
Perhaps if Duncan had a Jordan-like year off to pursue a career in professional swimming his continual dominance would have been better appreciated. And maybe that’s what The Thermals are doing with their latest album “Personal Life”. I’m not saying that the 2010 release from The Thermals is a cataclysmic failure like Jordan’s baseball career. In fact, there are some fantastic songs on the album that flow within the vein of what has become the band’s signature sound. “Personal Life” just lacks the significance that their past few albums have had – it lacks the weight. I’d like to believe they are taking a break from writing songs with depth in order to be better appreciated a year from now. I hope this is the case.
It’s album of love songs. That’s it. No allegories. No references to the bible. Just love songs. So yes, I guess the album has that signature Thermals album “theme” to it, but I’m pretty sure “love albums” have been recorded a million times over (if only they’d utilized a metaphor like the Roman Empire or the Civil War to express the struggles of love). But to just write a collection of love songs without any deeper meaning? I guess I’ve just come to expect more from the Portland band that is usually writing intelligent pop-punk songs. Never have they sounded so literal.
The album’s weakness goes beyond my textual analysis; the songs just aren’t as good as what I’ve come to expect, and I think I know why. The power chord has left the building; the distortion pedal has been put in the pantry. “Personal Life” consists mostly of bass driven songs with Hutch Harris meandering across the fret board trying to keep occupied without accomplishing much. Only on “I Don’t Believe You” do we hear that signature crunch, which also happens to be the best song on the album. It’s classic Thermals, plain and simple.
The video also features Carrie Brownstein of Sleater Kinney and Modest Mouse’s Isaac Brock:
The album starts off strong, but quickly dwindles into songs that lack the excitement of what we’ve come to expect from these three. Again, I must stress that the songs aren’t horrible; you can still hear the band’s knack for melody throughout. It’s just missing something.
The most disappointing moment has to be “Your Love is So Strong”, starting off with a promising “Oh-wo-ee-oh-oh-oh-oh!” intro reminiscent of their 2009 hit “Now We Can See”. But this is no “Now We Can See”. Instead, it builds up to stagnation. Unlike it’s 2009 sister, this song never explodes into the passion felt within their music in the past.
You can have this:
Maybe it’s the angst that’s missing. “The Body, The Blood, The Machine” had an anger towards God and the government, “Now We Can See” held a disdain for the past and mistakes, but “Personal Life” has only love. “You Changed My Life”, “Not Like Any Other Feeling”, “Only For You”: these aren’t the types of song titles that lead to fist pump or jumping humping. These are songs for spooning in a Snuggie. No thank you. I’ll take my rage elsewhere. Let’s just hope that The Thermals read some Vygostky sometime in the near future; that psycho-babble will frustrate anyone.