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Don’t Expect

(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:

“Well, I’ve seen saints, but remember / That I forgot to flag ’em down / When they passed and in the morning light / You hold that ashtray tight”

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.

Would I?