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I’ve been listening to “Daydream Nation”, along with everyone else I guess, since I was about 12 (1996). The record wasn’t all that old yet. I saw them standing on that street-corner at night with all the blue denim and crummy t-shirts, and I wanted to go to that place immediately. The record doesn’t sound old to me in 2013 though, honestly. Everything it dredges up– emotions, cultural imagery, rock sounds & styles– seems more or less unchanged today. My mind has phosphor burn-in from this album like they used to warn you would happen to your computer screen. What this looks like is more like the awesome color-river you can see by putting a strong magnet to the other side of that glass, in synch. with your parents’ horrified eyes and open mouths as they watch you tempt permanent damage. I sort of wish DDN still made parents want to shield their kids from permanent mind-damage (if it ever was in that category).
Anyway, I’ve been thinking about the actual music on the album for a long time, too. I’m no music theorist, so the following paragraphs are gonna be a mixture of personal reactions and notes on harmony and rhythm I hear on the record. The songs reference aspects of the other songs a lot. It’s no accident that it feels like one whole thing (part of their anxiety about making a double record I’m sure– the post-60s “concept album” dreaded by punks). Anyway, here it is:
Major seconds and major pentatonic scales all over the place. The first three unique pitches, the guitar with chorus on it, are a fifth apart and a second apart respectively. None of it seems to be going anywhere though, just roaming. There’s that rumbling guitar noise far in the background (Lee’s Eventide-processed guitar?), vaguely ominous behind all this. Then a minor third comes in, then a major third. major pentatonic scales instead of minor, but otherwise the standard rock moves (1-4-5), but leans hard on the dom7 of the 5 chord. At least one guitar is tuned GABDEG, which certainly makes the seconds more natural to play on the neck. I don’t know this stuff too well, but that stack of notes in the tuning also reminds me of the harmonic series– the first nine or so harmonics. To me, it definitely feels good to play an electric guitar in that tuning very loud. It reminds me of Rhys Chatham’s stuff a little bit, which has links to spectral ideas in music, right?
Rhythmic figure on guitars during verse comes back as the rhythm of the hook in “Total Trash.” Major pentatonic feel comes back briefly for the “I’m the captive on the rock” bit in “Candle”.
Intro shifts back and forth between a major triad and an implied 9th chord (1-b7-9) which sounds really cool (to me). Common jazz chord but not so much in rock. Maybe I’m just not remembering or listening to the right songs. Neil Young does stuff like this a lot (“Ohio”). Also memorable is the little section in the middle with the Neu! drum pattern where it shifts back and forth between a major 7th chord and a major seventh sus4 chord. Those major 7th sus chords are one of my favorites (e.g., Steely Dan’s “Peg”, part of SY’s own song “Sugar Kane”). I love the lyrics to this song; capitalism delirium (“Come on down to the store”, “that big sign by the road / that’s where it all started”, etc.– culture-industry-managed consumption; “old machines / still and rusting now I guess” – production by manufacturing moves out of U.S. to periphery). I also really dig the title, referring to that mega-city from that William Gibson novel).
The whole thing is very ambiguous, mostly based on just two sus4 chords as far as I can tell. (The demo of the song included at the end of the “deluxe” reissue’s first CD makes this clearer). The fuzz-wah guitar, mixed way too loud on purpose a la Dinosaur Jr., sort of obscures any chord progression. So does the speak-singing vocal. The lyrics, modeled on Eric Emerson’s monologue on LSD from “Chelsea Girls,” just add to the feeling of disorientation.
Rhythmic figure on Thurston’s guitar (I guess) is very similar to the hook from Teenage Riot. Except this time around, it sounds angry and chaotic. Thanks in part to the amp-at-10 sound and the flat 9 interval he keeps throwing in.
The flat 6 interval is what stands out to me here. The hook figure that goes 5-10-11-10-b6-5-1, plus the “tone clusters” (as someone on youtube comments called them (!)) that constitute the repeating background figure of the verse, contains the same motion between flat 6 and major 6. An arpeggio over a minor 9th chord comes in right before the clusters, reminiscent of the 1-b7-9 in the intro. to “The Sprawl”.
I love these last two songs.
(1) “Slow it down / Song is sacred”
[from recorded version of “Shoot The Singer”, “Watery, Domestic” EP]
(2) “Slow it down / This song is not sacred”
[from a live performance of “Shoot The Singer” excerpted in the film Slow Century]
“The cognitive utopia would be to use concepts to unseal the non-conceptual with concepts, without making it their equal.”
[T.W. Adorno, Negative Dialectics]
So, what is this contradiction (or change?) from (1) to (2) about? The song is not sacred in the usual sense. It’s not holy music by anyone’s understanding.
So whatever sacred means in the recorded version must be something else, barring that it’s a joke / it’s facetious, etc.
And unless the song actually became unsacred between recording and performing it, or the performance was facetious or a joke, or the song that the song “Shoot The Singer” refers to is not itself, or the recorded version was in error (and the song was never actually sacred), then there is no contradiction between the two versions because “sacred” doesn’t mean in the second version what it meant in the first.
I can definitely see a sense in which you might want to call the song sacred. It’s a piece of idiosyncratic artistic work. The kind of thing that might have a special aura for the artist, especially just after committing it to record in some form. Before it becomes public “property”– performed, that is. And then it’s clear that, at least, the song might not be sacred anymore, once it’s performed. So it could be a highly self-aware move to change this line of the song while performing it.
But what does it mean to call a song like this “sacred?” The song is barely comprehensible, the product of wordplay, and singing whatever comes to mind or feels right. Whatever literal statements in it are obscured or just not actually intact, in the sense of conveying assertoric information. They’re expressions or images or something. Almost all of the early Pavement songs are like this.
So the song seems much less an intellectually calculated arrangement of words and more a record of half-conscious associations and sound-patterns. So it seems to me more like a product of the “unconscious” mind than the conscious one. But, as is pretty clear from the rest of this period’s song-lyrics (e.g., the “Watery, Domestic” EP), the world that formed that unconscious mind where these lyrics came from is not sacred. Or at least it seems so to whatever is the voice of these songs. From the name of the band to the references to suburban vapidity (“Lions (Linden)”) to the tossed-off lines referring to to some extremely mundane and ruined human geography (e.g, the “shanty town” in “Rain Ammunition” from the 1992 Peel Sessions), the perspective these songs frame is not rose-colored or otherworldly. As “Shoot The Singer” refrains: “don’t expect.”
Whatever unconscious mind formed these images is as much a product of decrepit public gymnasiums, asphalt and, in spite of itself, as often lived “beside the spiral staircase when the money’s coming in” as any other (“So Stark”). It’s not a sensibility super attuned to the sacred, whatever that may be. “I’ve been waitin’ here for oh so long / This is life / And it’s flat” (“So Stark”). Nor does this sensibility hold the usual distinctions sacred. The “natives fussing at the data charts”– are they on this side of the anthropologist’s notebook or the other (“Frontwards”)?
If anything I’m inferring is anything like true, there is serious ambivalence towards sacredness in these songs. Not only does the song pronounce itself sacred and not sacred, but it seems to cancel that ambivalence. It pronounces itself unsacred by its own self-aware implication in this sort of crappy world of its experience. Yet the song proclaims its own sacredness, from the petrochemical material of an EP record no less. Is the live performance a justified correction to the recording?
I don’t really think so.
As much as the words “don’t expect” echo in the concrete facility that houses these songs, they don’t just stop, either. In fact, most of them go on, and on, for some minutes past their natural pop conclusion. Mumbling increasingly tenuous homophones and dragging out bent distorted lines till they dissolve, pulled apart at the joints. The watchword is frustration. Not exactly the product of no (though maybe low) expectations). “Shoot The Singer” leans so hard on hope or expectation that it claims to have barely missed the holy men in its path:
At dawn, not only is the ashtray a treasured artifact but literal frustration remains: “you could put it out / But I can’t put it out.”
Magic wretchedness, or magical half-conscious expectations of wretched mundane things. These songs are full of that. Sometimes, to the point where I question if the “every building same height / Every street a straight line”-perspective from which they’re written has any experience of what it tries to drape in sorcery: “shanty town / Look at your lime sparks” (“Lions (Linden)”; “Rain Ammunition”). Or whether the “stunning bureaucrat” who’s “so fucking lost / Signing the letters / And cutting the costs” is really more lost than the guy clutching his holy ashtray at the end of the night. Still. By the end of that agonized scream,
“I can’t live / Beside the spiral staircase / When the money’s COMING IN”
the Iron Cage feels about as real as a 9:00am interview.
Taking these songs as a whole, my impression is that the magic takes place in some kind of triangle between low expectations, ashtrays, and paroxysmic screaming at businessmen. Which actually sounds pretty reasonable to me. I’d like to say “whatever it takes”, but the point is that you don’t seek out the saints and the lime sparks in this crap. Or else you don’t see them at all. And a conceptual can-opener for the non-conceptual can might be cognitive utopia, but I wouldn’t expect it.