Sorrow, Solace, and Sense: Isobel Campbell and Mark Lanegan’s Sunday at Devil Dirt, The Dears’ Missiles, and Death Cab for Cutie’s Narrow Stairs (with U2’s No Line on the Horizon)

By Daniel Garrett

Isobel Campbell and Mark Lanegan
Sunday at Devil Dirt
Arranged and Produced by Isobel Campbell
V2 Records International/Fontana, 2008

The Dears
Missiles
Produced by 6333699 Canada Inc.
Dangerbird Records, 2008

Death Cab for Cutie
Narrow Stairs
Produced by Chris Walla
Atlantic Recording Corp., 2008

In times of pleasure and plenty, art is an entertainment, a luxury. In times of turmoil, art is a refuge. Will we have arts of style or substance, arts of delight or depth? There was an age when charges of moral decline and physical ugliness formed part of the arguments against a character, place, or thing; and that age has long passed: what is abrasive or repellent is seen now as part of a demanding integrity, a modern option, a form of rigor that discourages the shallow and the weak. Yet, it is the achievement of something I hesitate to call beauty—a mastery of sound that is the equal of significant perception and tenderness—in the work of Isobel Campbell and Mark Lanegan’s Sunday at Devil Dirt, The Dears’ Missiles, and Death Cab for Cutie’s Narrow Stairs that impresses and moves me. It seems to take courage to be intelligent, sincere, or tender these days, an unfortunate fact that makes good work founded on these virtues even more admirable, more precious. The arrival, as well, of U2’s No Line on the Horizon, produced by Brian Eno, Danny Lanois, and Steve Lillywhite, from Interscope, is an opportunity to hear what one of the most important music bands has to say.

Isobel Campbell, the Scottish singer who was once part of music group Belle and Sebastian, and who has done work alone (Amorino and Milkwhite Sheets) as well as work (Ballad of the Broken Seas) with Mark Lanegan of Screaming Trees and Queens of the Stone Age, has produced a very good album in Sunday at Devil Dirt. On the album Sunday at Devil Dirt, featuring songs mostly written or co-written by Isobel Campbell, the deep male voice of Mark Lanegan sings a ballad, “Seafaring Song,” accompanied by a guitar and a light, somewhat distant female voice, Campbell’s; and, with this song about the return home after a voyage, it is as if we were returned to a time when existence, as well as personal relationships, contained mystery as much as conflict. Something of a fable is created with “The Raven,” about a raven with a broken wing, in which a dwelling is referred to as a chamber, and a bird becomes a damsel; and in the song the once feverishly sick man and the woman make love and “sorrow numbed with each caress.” The tone of Jim McCulloch’s composition “Salvation” is lighter than its lyrics, with their acknowledgement of disbelief and the repeated phrase “gotta get up and moan,” and the narrator’s late acceptance of belief and home. “Oh, why don’t we learn from mistakes? We stumble along with so many more to make,” declares the song “Who Built the Road,” which, with a pretty chorus, is more of a duet than the songs that came before it; but, the song does seem to contain a triumph: “Who built the road that led to my self-esteem?”

Desire speaks in Sunday at Devil Dirt’s “Come On Over (Turn Me On).” A more contemporary atmosphere—and sensibility—is suggested by the prominent drumming and bass in “Back Burner,” a song of both commitment and lust. There are sound effects (a honking car horn) as well as a piano, forming an interlude, a piano tango, before “The Flame That Burns,” which counsels against life’s woes, “Don’t you hang your head, don’t you feel no shame.” A sultry guitar and delicate female voice are featured in “Shotgun Blues” (I thought that if Marilyn Monroe recorded a blues song, it might sound like this); and Campbell plays piano and guitar on it as well as sings. There is a return to a much older tradition in the lyrics and sound of “Keep Me in Mind, Sweetheart,” the kind of song Stephen Foster might have written, about a new love dulling the fervor for an old love. (These are songs, forged in a new century, that are not afraid to recall the trying circumstances, sturdier attitudes, and many resources of music history.) “Oh, it’s so hard, with the answers I find, weary of heart, weary soul, weak of mind, oh it’s so hard” and “If you stand by me, I could never leave. You’d be the reason, something to believe” are lyrics in “Something to Believe,” a timeless declaration. “Something to Believe,” and the fine and forceful duet “Trouble,” and the soothing and sympathetic “Sally, Don’t You Cry” complete the primary song set; and there are five bonus songs: “Fight Fire with Fire,” “Asleep on a Sixpence,” and the instrumental “Violin Tango” featuring Greg Lawson on violin, and “Rambling Rose, Clinging Vine,” and “Hang On.” Some of these songs have a beautiful, antique sound, with the last one featuring songwriter and producer Isobel Campbell singing lead.

Sorrow sometimes comes to us out of our aching need, but more often it comes to us out of loss: it can be rooted in frustrated hope and yearning; and it can be stoked by our having held and lost something we wanted, barely understood, and wanted to know much better, something we wanted to hold for years—with the pain of separation and memory and regret following in its absence. Sometimes the beloved and lost thing is love, and sometimes it is youth or youth’s pleasures and possibilities. Sorrow is the subject of many songs, and it contributes to the strength of Isobel Campbell and Mark Lanegan’s Sunday at Devil Dirt; and while it is less direct, less poetic, or in a phrase, less classical, in The Dears’ Missiles, and Death Cab for Cutie’s Narrow Stairs, it is there, in Missiles and Narrow Stairs, as well.

Murray Lightburn with his band The Dears have created several song collections, End of a Hollywood Bedtime Story, No Cities Left, and Gang of Losers at the beginning of the twenty-first century, albums known for their serious themes and complex orchestrations. Missiles, The Dears’ successor to its Gang of Losers album, featuring songs written by Murray Lightburn, is conceived in three parts: songs one to five, songs six to nine, and song ten. A somewhat dense, jazzy rock introduction is given to “Disclaimer,” the first song on the Canadian band’s album Missiles, and it is the density of independent rock, a density that suggests both personal intensity and social confusion, with lines that refer to how common struggle and trouble are, lines that state, “I can’t forgive and I won’t forget. I wanna pummel some heads just because.” (Unhappy people tend to be unfriendly; and the wounded tend to wound.) Yet, the male singer’s voice is melodious—he survives whatever dilemma the song suggests; and the refrain “come back/ oh, I’ll get through to ya” jumps out of the song. (The first and last songs have religious references.) Slightly countryish, featuring voice and drum, and intimate is “Dream Job,” which observes someone who has “dreams of taking someone else’s dreams away” and affirms “we got dreams.” The beginning of “Money Babies,” about financial need and resource, could be an excerpt from a soundtrack for a science-fiction western; and the song, with male and female voices, has texture and a quick tempo, but some of the lyrics, while relatively fresh, are too obscure or rhetorical for my taste: “Decapitative laughter is keeping us alive. Cavalcades of losers, losing their minds. Hoping for disaster.” The composition “Berlin Heart” has a contemplative, sad sound, suggesting a desolation that yet contains hope. With voice and guitar, and a simple repeated rhythm, “Lights Off,” with the theme of lasting restlessness and the urge for comfort, is a very long song: partly instrumental with a solo electric guitar, there are also sung and spoken passages.

A female voice, that of Natalia Yanchak, is the first leading voice in “Crisis 1 and 2,” which begins the second part of the album Missiles, an appealing, surprisingly pretty song, before a male voice enters the song with a strong intensity and rhythm. The song suggests an existence that is equal parts adventure and desperation, solitary and seeking companionship. “Demons” has more energy than the preceding songs but has a similar theme (“there are demons around here”). The male voice in the song “Missiles” is vulnerable; and one lyric states, “I’m a negro just trying to get by on very little.” Is the root of trouble existential—part of all human existence, at all times—or is it personal and social, the trouble of a particular man who is Negro? (I wondered the same thing listening to the Dears’ previous album Gang of Losers. Interesting: Missiles was begun as a solo project for Murray Lightburn, and it evolved into a Dears album.) “Missiles get guided through to our world,” the narrator claims, suggesting a life spent at war. “Is this a cry for help?” asks the ballad, “Meltdown in A Major,” which describes the isolation of someone as others celebrate, and contains dark heavy musical notes. “Saviour,” the collection’s last composition, and the last of the album’s three parts, featuring a choir, is a spiritual accounting, recalling a childhood of easy belief and a difficult maturity and asking for forgiveness. Sorrow, here, seems to come despite friends, despite love, with the only recourse being to vengeful willfulness or the healing balm of the divine.

“I descended a dusty gravel road, beneath the Bixby Canyon bridge, until I eventually arrived at the place where your soul had died,” begins Death Cab for Cutie’s Narrow Stairs, with album lyrics by singer Benjamin Gibbard, the songs produced by Chris Walla; and Narrow Stairs is my most favorite album in a long while, I think. Solitary and expressive is “Bixby Canyon Bridge,” a song about walking in the footsteps of a hero, a song with a crisply thunderous sound, not unlike Nirvana’s Nevermind (or even Beethoven). This American band, from the state of Washington, has become important to a growing audience, and the album Narrow Stairs’ explorations, explorations almost any feeling person can relate to, will expand that affection. The song “Bixby Canyon Bridge” captures the disappointment of a romantic quest: epiphanies do not come upon request. The song that follows, “I Will Possess Your Heart,” a declaration from the dark spirit of love, builds a momentum that crests, with a force that is nearly disturbing and somewhat sexy, suggesting it can be hard to know the difference between dedication and pathology. One might expect “No Sunlight,” to be dour, with its words about the sunlight of childhood and the increasing cloudiness of maturity, but, with guitar, drum, and voice, it has a light, fast sound; and “Cath,” about an ill-omened marriage, is beautifully dense and warm, a song that seems rooted in personal observation, and its boisterous music suggests a public address, a crowd (here, eloquence is a natural gift). “Talking Bird,” featuring an image of a bird in an open cage in a house with open windows, a home that may or may not be the best home, is sung in a plaintive, yearning voice, against a heavy drumbeat, whereas “You Can Do Better Than Me” is an odd anthem, nearly martial (maybe the kind of thing the narrator has thought too often). “My old clothes don’t fit like they once did, so they hang like ghosts of the people I’ve been,” thinks the narrator in “You Can Do Better Than Me,” about a long relationship that seems to be no longer what its participants need. “Grapevine Fires” and “Your New Twin-Sized Bed” offer a refinement and sympathy that are personal and artistic accomplishments. Three songs, the fast-beat “Long Division,” which is focused on a lovers’ quarrel, and the rhythmically varied “Pity and Fear,” about a brief sexual affair, and the somber, twanging “The Ice is Getting Thinner,” on the long, dangerous dissolution of a relationship, close the collection, which has the richness of literature in the quality and quantity of stories it contains: what is there in terms of experience and figures, however interesting on their own, seems to stand in for much more. In Death Cab for Cutie’s Narrow Stairs, it is less the characters in the stories who offer or find hope, than the musicians who make the music and we as listeners who have hope: in the recognition of human diversity and the abundance of human feeling comes the perception that if we accept the fact of sorrow, if we are honest about how we came to sorrow and that sorrow can end and how it may end, we might be able to survive it and grow from it.

I salute Isobel Campbell and Mark Lanegan’s Sunday at Devil Dirt, The Dears’ Missiles, and Death Cab for Cutie’s Narrow Stairs, recordings that will long survive the year, 2008, in which they were made. The songs on all three albums have a vital and vivid variety, and draw, to different degrees, on the technique and tone of Euro-classical music and even jazz as much as on folk music and rock. (Long live beauty!) The music does not deny imagination or intellect and, consequently, achieves insight and some innovation, without an indulgent strangeness. However, whatever the musicians’ intelligence and talents, thus far, only Death Cab for Cutie promises, for the near future, to be as famous or successful a band as U2.

The music group U2 is as established a group as there is, representing both the energy and meaning available to rock music. It is what the Rolling Stones used to be and what the most ambitious bands aspire to be: creative, famous, popular, respected, worthy of being called the best rock band in the world, a mythic status. The discography of the Irish band U2 includes: Boy, October, War, Under a Blood Red Sky, The Unforgettable Fire, The Joshua Tree, Rattle and Hum, Achtung Baby!, Zooropa, Pop, All That You Can’t Leave Behind, and How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb, albums from the very early 1980s through 2004, albums forming some of the standards by which No Line on the Horizon is judged. No Line on the Horizon was produced by Brian Eno, Danny Lanois, and Steve Lillywhite, and is distributed by Interscope (2009). I had been impressed by the group U2’s performance of its newest music (the song “Get On Your Boots”), a performance of image, movement, and sound, during the opening of the recent televised Grammy awards, and was surprised that its first night (of five nights) performance, of the song “Breathe,” for the David Letterman show was not more satisfying—it seemed all intention rather than fulfillment. Clearly, the Letterman show was intended to be an event (Bono invoked the name of Ed Sullivan, which conjures images of the Rolling Stones and the Beatles: the show is filmed in the old Ed Sullivan theater, where those legendary groups performed). The crowd responded to Bono’s call for it to stand by standing but could the music alone inspire an ovation (which the band had received at the Grammy awards)? Is the album uneven? How will others respond to its music?

The album No Line on the Horizon has the songs “No Line on the Horizon,” “Magnificent,” “Moment of Surrender,” “Unknown Caller,” “I’ll Go Crazy If I Don’t Go Crazy Tonight,” “Get On Your Boots,” “Stand Up Comedy,” “Fez—Being Born,” “White As Snow,” “Breathe,” and “Cedars of Lebanon”; and the songs were available for listening at the band’s official web site before the album’s official March 2009 release. Rolling Stone magazine’s David Fricke called “No Line on the Horizon, U2’s first album in nearly five years and their best, in its textural exploration and tenacious melodic grip, since 1991’s Achtung Baby” (February 20, 2009). Ann Powers of the Los Angeles Times, awarded the album three stars out of four, and stated, “Despite the playful exhortation of the first single, ‘Get On Your Boots,’ No Line on the Horizon is mostly reflective. Lengthy songs grow up around lyrics that read like cinematic flashbacks and unspooled skeins of guitar and keyboard effects” (February 25, 2009). It is not be surprising to find two major players and investors in the entertainment industrial complex, Rolling Stone and the Los Angeles Times, celebrating an important manufacturer and popular stock, U2. However, the independent and consistently thoughtful online magazine PopMatters rated the album a six on a scale from one to ten, on March 2nd, its critic Evan Sawdey noting that the band writes epic songs but the new album is usually quiet, with Sawdey reminding us of the work’s production difficulties, the fact that “the hotly-anticipated No Line on the Horizon has had much to weather through from the get-go: aborted sessions with Rick Rubin, release-date delays due to the band needing more songs, the entire album leaking weeks before its release, etcetera etcetera. It shouldn’t be much of a surprise, then, that Horizon sounds so world-weary and defeated, coming off as the moody polar-opposite of the distortion-fueled Bomb” and Sawdey, faulting the band’s preference for mood over melody, found that “we get the sound of the world’s mightiest pop craftsmen finally coming up short.” It is not unlikely that because of the trouble involved in the manufacture of an album, there can be an inclination to be pessimistic about the results, a prejudice, although sometimes troubled craft-making does lead to new and good inventions. Yet, Drowned in Sound’s reviewer called No Line on the Horizon staid and uninspired, and Pitchfork’s said that whatever experimentation on the album that does exist is misguided or buried under formula, the assessments of two online sites known to track new rock music. Of course, negative responses to U2’s recorded work may be of limited value: a point arises in the careers of musicians when the only genre they belong to is one of their own making—which is to say, U2 makes not rock music but U2 music, and their longtime admirers understand that and now require nothing more.

It may be an inevitability, as well as an irony, that U2’s No Line on the Horizon does not have quite the grasp of human experience possessed by Isobel Campbell and Mark Lanegan’s Sunday at Devil Dirt, The Dears’ Missiles, and Death Cab for Cutie’s Narrow Stairs. Sometimes sorrow defeats us; and sometimes sheer ambition does. Sometimes we can make strength and wisdom of sorrow. However, there are times when we have to move beyond sorrow, solace, and even sense, beyond sound, and accept silence.


Daniel Garrett is a writer whose work has appeared in The African, AllAboutJazz.com, American Book Review, Art & Antiques, The Audubon Activist, Cinetext.Philo, Film International, Hyphen, IdentityTheory.com, Muse-Apprentice-Guild.com, Offscreen.com, Option, PopMatters.com, The Review of Contemporary Fiction, WaxPoetics.com, and World Literature Today. “There are different musicians whose works captivated me in the last twelve months or more,” said Daniel Garrett before sitting down to type his notes about Death Cab for Cutie. “Jill Scott, Aimee Mann, Al Green, Lyrics Born (Tom Shimura), Josh Ritter, Apples in Stereo, Angie Stone, Anthony Hamilton, among them. I have been enjoying Ancient Future’s Planet Passion, Matthew Montfort’s Seven Serenades, and Mariah Parker’s Sangria. I am reminded that a philosopher, Nietzsche, once said that without music life would be a mistake.” Daniel Garrett’s web log at Blogger.com, focused on culture and society, is called “City and Country, Boy and Man.” His e-mail address is D.Garrett.Writer@gmail.com

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