Thursday, February 24, 2011

Arizona

I never intended for this to be a political blog (God knows there are enough of those), and I don't consider myself an especially political person. But when I stumbled upon a song about Arizona--probably the only one I'll find-- it happened to address a topic that has been the source of intense political debate in the past few months. Arizona is a border state, so of course I'm talking about the immigration debates that have garnered a lot of CNN face time. We arrive at this topic through the lyrics of unlikely political commentator Brandon Flowers and the song 'Magdalena.'



For a song about the woes of illegal immigration, 'Magdalena' has a fairly upbeat sound. Flamingo sees Flowers experimenting with an array of sounds that move away from the Killers aesthetic, from old-timey country ('On the Floor') to the mariachi tint in 'Magdalena.' The 'plot' of the song, such as it is, revolves around the journey from the Arizona border town of Nogales to Magdalena, in Sonora, Mexico. It's a trip of about 60 miles through the desert, and the first thing you'll notice about the song is that its protagonist isn't going the direction you'd think. In light of the recent immigration debates in Arizona, we think of surreptitious midnight border crossings from Mexico to the US, but the travelers here are returning to Magdalena. As explained in this article, the trip from Nogales to Magdalena is an annual pilgrimage taken by hundreds of Mexicans every October. They make the journey on foot over two or three days, carrying "mandas" with them. As Flowers phrases it in the song, I assumed a manda was a type of talisman or religious reminder, but actually it's described as "penance, miracles, promises and pay it forwards." Like pilgrims throughout history, those traveling to Magdalena are seeking spiritual fulfillment or redemption.

Through its connection to redemption, the Nogales to Magdalena pilgrimage parallels dozens of other writings and songs about journeys in America. We've discussed Raleigh's redemptive journey after falling into disfavor with Queen Elizabeth, and it's also a theme that Springsteen returns to over and over. Images of the desert or other spacious locations are most often associated with these redemptive journeys, and 'Magdalena' follows this trend with its cleansing trip through the desert.

If this journey was from Magdalena to Nogales, this post would be about the search for the American dream that millions of immigrants have undertaken since the first settlers arrived in the sixteenth century. But what's interesting about 'Magdalena' is that the journey takes place in reverse. The travelers in 'Magdalena' are not seeking progress and success in America, but a return to the traditions of their homeland. It's an unusual twist on the narrative of the American dream, a rejection of all that that the nation represents. "Please don't offer me your modern methods/I'm fixin' to carve this out of wood," Flowers proclaims at the beginning of the track. Putting aside the obvious problem of imagining Brandon Flowers handcrafting anything from wood, the image suggests a desire for tradition above success.

'Magdalena' is a song about the failure to find the bounty or happiness that America promises, and as such it's a remarkably thoughtful and modern look at the state of affairs on our southern border. The song's bridge makes it clear that Flowers has the political issues surrounding immigration in mind. He describes "a bullet in the night/a Federale's light" before imploring San Francisco for aid. As a resident of the southwest, Flowers has certainly seen the issues that arise with immigration, but he's unusual in taking the viewpoint of the thousands of immigrants who don't succeed in their new lives. He describes them as "prodigal sons and wayward daughters," implying that their return to their homeland is inevitable once they discover the hardship that awaits them. The song also suggests that there is something corrupt in seeking success in America, that its wealth is a siren's call away from tradition and home. The song's final lines are: "If I should fall to temptation when I return to the evil throes/ From Nogales to Magdalena as a two-time beggar I will go/ Where I know I can be forgiven/ The broken heart of Mexico." As chaotic and dangerous as Mexico is, it is the homeland, preferred to the loss of culture and tradition that accompany a transplant to America. In fact, there's a shame in abandoning your culture that requires a redemptive journey, and perhaps more than one if you fall prey to the temptation of Americanization more than once.

In 'Magdalena,' Flowers finds some of his strongest parallels with his musical idol, Bruce Springsteen. As songwriters, both return over and over to the importance of religion in the American consciousness. Springsteen seeks "the promised land" just as Flowers takes the pilgrimage to Magdalena. Also, each meshes the idea of a redemptive journey with a mixture of disdain and longing for home. Flowers' pilgrims value the traditional lifestyle of Mexico-- complete with its religious practices and beliefs-- over the foreign success of life in America. In parallel narratives, Springsteen's protagonists seek better lives outside New Jersey even as they express nostalgia for their home state. Relationships of tension define much of the American experience-- tension between tradition and progress, between religion and superstition and modernity, and between home and the potential for a better life elsewhere. These themes become especially meaningful when considering our border states and our relationship with other nations. For a Vegas showman who's usually more interested in rhinestones than politics, Flowers creates a nuanced consideration of cultural conflict and the power of tradition.

Tracks:
Magdalena

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Nevada

Let's establish something from the get-go. Brandon Flowers loves Las Vegas. LOVES it. LOVES IT. He named his debut solo album Flamingo in honor of one of the city's famous hotels. His next album could be called LAS VEGAS: AWESOME and he could use the songs as a soundtrack for his campaign to become mayor. So there was no one else I could ever think of writing about when I got to Nevada. Not that there aren't a multitude of other artists associated with Vegas-- The Rat Pack, of course, as well as dozens of others who have taken up residence at various casinos and theatrical, now-mostly-defunct emo act Panic! at the Disco-- but no one seems to engage as personally with the city and state as native son Flowers, born in the Vegas suburb Henderson, NV.



One side of Flowers' Las Vegas is the one that appears in the ubiquitous commercials promising "What Happens in Vegas Stays in Vegas." Bright, glamorous (?), fun more than anything else. On the title track of his solo album, Flowers bids us 'Welcome to Fabulous Las Vegas'-- a song he prefaces at gigs with a story about passing the iconic sign as a kid from the suburbs. In 'Welcome,' 'Sam's Town,' 'Neon Tiger,' and several other songs from the Killers catalog, it becomes clear that Flowers has a genuine tourist's of affection for Vegas as a mecca for flash and entertainment. 'Sam's Town' [a nickname for Vegas] "rolls that world right off [Flowers'] shoulders;" he buys into the image of Vegas as an escape.

However, there's also a certain cynicism in Flowers' Vegas that suggests he knows it better than your average tourist. In Welcome he asks, "Didn't nobody tell you the house will always win?" Everyone realizes that there's a lack of substance underneath Vegas' flash, and that whatever substance it has is seedy at best. In 'Sam's Town,' Flowers seems defeated by the city-- "Nobody ever had a dream round here," he begins, "I don't really mind that-- it's starting to get to me." 'Welcome' reimagines the famous inscription on the Statue of Liberty for Vegas-- "Give us your dreamers, your harlots and your sins, Las Vegas." It's an interesting take on the American dream, something of a parody, and the song itself takes on that style as well. It's overly grand (even for Flowers), with a big, arching chorus and a lengthy run time. It's Flowers' answer to a Vegas show or the hotels that are parodies of real places around the world.

The most interesting thing about Flowers' portrayals of Vegas is that they constantly reference the American dream, even as they doubt that the city can be a place to fulfill it. 'Sam's Town' is a song about Americana and success, as is much of the eponymous album. "My brother, he was born on the Fourth of July," Flowers proclaims. (Strangely enough, a true fact.) In 'Sam's Town' and 'Bling,' Flowers finds a realization of the dreams of success he places on Las Vegas. And in some ways, Vegas is a realization of a certain American dream. It's big, it's bright, it's full of money and fun. But as we've seen in other 'fun' states like California and Florida, sun and relaxation comes with a sense of impermanence or falsity. The flipside to the American dream of success is the need to work hard, to suffer in some Puritanical way, and places like Vegas that lack that facet always bring with them some sense of suspicion.

Flowers also writes frequently about the rest of Nevada, and the dichotomy of Vegas glitz and grimy desert tableaux in his solo album and his Killers discography represent the state itself fairly well. In his digressions into the desert, Flowers seems to find more hope and spiritual resonance than he does in the glitter pastiche of Vegas. Despite being under 30, he channels a world-weary Dylan or Springsteen when dealing with the 'Dustland' that surrounds his hometown. There's more purity and personal engagement in these tracks, and listeners get the sense that this is where Flowers really finds the American dream. He writes about his family when he writes about the desert-- his siblings, the parents he idealizes in 'Dustland' and 'The Clock Was Ticking' as an ideal couple. Critics have been harsh with Flowers for his sudden transitions into down-home diction on tracks like 'This River Is Wild' after the British overtones of debut Hot Fuss, but I don't think it's entirely an act. It might be more a revelation. Maybe it's easier for Flowers to pretend-- to be a Vegas showman with slick faux-English production like the fake Eiffel Tower on the Strip-- than it is for him to dig into the reality of his childhood and share it with listeners.

Moving back to Vegas, Flowers' disillusionment with the city is mirrored in Hunter S. Thompson's Gonzo classic Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. A long-weekend look at the city through a haze of drugs, Thompson's writing is a snapshot of all Vegas' excesses. It's not as grandiose or idealized as Flowers' takes on the city, but there's a similar loss of touch with reality. Critics point to the notion in Thompson's writing of "solace in excess," the idea that when you cannot think of any other way to be content, you simply seek and acquire as much as possible. For Thompson in Fear and Loathing this comes in the form of drugs. In one of Thompson's favorite novels, The Great Gatsby, Jay Gatsby is the original champion of 'solace in excess.' Without a family name to bolster him and desperate to reclaim a childhood love, he throws lavish parties, buys houses and cars, and in one famous scene from the novel owns enough shirts that it makes that childhood love weep to see them all. Gatsby and Thompson take parallel journeys in their respective works, seeking the American dream of success and happiness through temporary, material acquisitions and vapid escapes and coming up with nothing in the end. Vegas, equally entertaining but hollow, is the city for both of them-- maybe in a modern version Gatsby would go there instead of East Egg. It's this side of Vegas that Flowers fears and rejects, a substanceless place of constant consumption and disposal. Maybe it's why he prefers the desert.

All these elements-- Flowers' Vegas and desert, Thompson, Gatsby-- come back together in a final Killers track. 'Read My Mind' is arguably the centerpiece of Sam's Town, a driving burst of synth backing up some of Flowers' strongest lyrics:

On the corner of main street
Just tryin' to keep it in line
You say you wanna move on and
You say I'm falling behind
Can you read my mind?

I never really gave up on
Breakin' out of this two-star town
I got the green light
I got a little fight
I'm gonna turn this thing around
Can you read my mind?

The good old days, the honest man;
The restless heart, the Promised Land
A subtle kiss that no one sees;
A broken wrist and a big trapeze

Oh well I don't mind, if you don't mind
Cause I don't shine if you don't shine
Before you go, can you read my mind?

It’s funny how you just break down
Waitin' on some sign
I pull up to the front of your driveway
With magic soakin' my spine
Can you read my mind?

The teenage queen, the loaded gun;
The drop dead dream, the Chosen One
A southern drawl, a world unseen;
A city wall and a trampoline
[...]

Slippin’ in my faith until I fall
You never returned that call
Woman, open the door, don't let it sting
I wanna breathe that fire again
[...]

The stars are blazing like rebel diamonds cut out of the sun
When you read my mind


There's less 'story' to this track than many Killers songs, but the images are strong enough to create the dichotomy you need to understand. Flowers creates a balance between purity-- the teenage queen, the Promised Land, the secret kiss-- and corruption or confinement in the city-- "a broken wrist and a big trapeze," the loaded gun. In the end, as so many American songwriters do, he wants escape. He's most likely to seek it outside Vegas, where the "stars are blazing." He uses a natural image, and one that would be impossible to see above all Vegas' lights, to symbolize the attainment of what he really wants: the connection with another person that he idealizes in songs about his parents and his desert upbringing. Flowers refuses the theory of 'solace in excess,' trampolining over the city wall that confines Thompson as he's holed up in a Vegas hotel room. Flowers isn't unaware of Gatsby either-- "I've got the green light/I've got a little fight" is a reference to the light on the end of Daisy's dock in Fitzgerald's novel, known to anyone who's taken a high school English course. The green light represents Daisy and love, the things Gatsby wants most but can't attain through the excesses of his lifestyle. Like Flowers, what he wants is more organic than what money can buy in Vegas.

In one way, Vegas is its own unattainable dream. Flowers' wish to "break...out of this two star town" is double-edged. Is he dismissing Vegas, or echoing the more common American dream of making it in the big city? Who but Americans, bolstered with lingering Manifest Destiny, would have the audacity to construct a city in the desert? Flowers and Gatsby could appreciate that-- the desire to create, to strive and improve and achieve a dream. The excess of Vegas gets condemned overall, but maybe solace remains in the notion that there is no dream that can't be achieved. You can make an oasis in the desert, you can go there and win a million dollars, you can jump the wall or finally swim to the green light.

Tracks:
Welcome to Fabulous Las Vegas
Sam's Town
A Dustland Fairytale
Read My Mind

Monday, February 14, 2011

Texas

I had a different post in the works for this week, but in honor of Arcade Fire's well-deserved Grammy for Album of the Year last night I decided to shuffle in a post inspired by the album that won them the award-- The Suburbs. Arcade Fire excel at producing albums that capture the spirit of a moment in their lives, and their true gift is that they so often capture a moment in yours, too. With that in mind, this post will be a less literal look at its particular state-- Texas-- than some of the past ones have been. This has also been one of the hardest posts for me to formulate; I'm not sure I can capture the spirit of such a complex album in a few paragraphs, but I'll do my best.



That said, let's start with the one concrete reference to Texas that The Suburbs offers. In 'City with No Children,' lead singer Win Butler sings, "I dreamt I drove home to Houston on a highway that was underground/There was no light that we could see as we listened to the sound of the engine failing." Thematically, the album focuses on suburban expansion, nostalgia for childhood, and the alienation resulting from change, ideas easily applied more broadly than to just Texas. But Win and brother Will, AF's energetic drummer, are Houston natives, so it's safe to assume that the memories of a suburban childhood are at least somewhat inspired by that city.

Before we get started then, a quick look at Houston. In light of an abundance of space to expand and relatively lax zoning laws, Houston is a massive urban area. In 2009, NPR reported, "The city of Houston covers 620 square miles...You could put inside the city limits of Houston, simultaneously...the cities of Philadelphia, Baltimore, Chicago and Detroit." I've been to Houston and I knew it was big, but I had no idea it had reached such a prodigious size. The picture above is of a Houston suburb in 2006-- imagine 620 miles of that with the bland concrete of Houston's downtown and you'll understand how Win and Will remember their hometown with such loneliness; for such a huge place it has very little character. I found it interesting that even the title of that photo,"Sprawl Houston Suburb 2006," and the NPR article, "Texas Sized Sprawl: No End in Sight," pick up on the central theme of The Suburbs.

The album centers on a series of paired songs, including opener and closer 'The Suburbs' and 'The Suburbs (continued),' 'Half Light' I and II, and 'Sprawl' I and II. 'Sprawl I (Flatland)' picks up where 'City' leaves off, with the narrator's return to his home. It's easy to imagine the Houston suburb pictured above:

Took a drive into the sprawl
To find the house where we used to stay in
Couldn't read the number in the dark
You said, "Let's save it for another day."

Took a drive into the sprawl
To find the places we used to play
It was the loneliest day of my life
You're talking at me but I'm still far away

Let's take a drive
Through the sprawl
Through these towns they built to change
Then you said, the emotions are dead
It's no wonder that you feel so strange


One of the most rewarding things about The Suburbs as a complete album rather than just a series of singles is the way lyrical themes return over and over during the 16 tracks. The idea of a town "built to change" surfaces again in 'Suburban War' with the lines, "This town's so strange/they built it to change/and while we're sleeping all the streets get rearranged." AF's portrayal of the suburbs is as a place without the ability to connect to the life of an individual. Every image of the suburbs, where "dead shopping malls rise/like mountains beyond mountains," is one of division and loss, whether of innocence, friendship, or place. Even the city center itself, usually thought of as a vital, lively place, is sapped by movement toward the uniformity of the suburbs. 'City,' 'We Used to Wait,' and 'Rococo' focus on the notion of a "wilderness downtown," where the music scene has devolved into a shallow popularity contest of fad bands. "They build it up just to burn it back down," Butler dismisses the "modern kids" of 'Rococo.' The remaining city-dwellers are engaged in meaningless wars over commercialized products, even as they slip further into the sprawl. It's a common metaphor, but the sprawl represents the loss of individuality, or even the choice to be an individual. The opponents in the 'Suburban War' are "businessmen," "the markets," "the modern kids" who think life in suburbia is ideal.

What makes the nondescript portrayal of suburban sprawl especially wrenching is the way AF pairs it with memories of childhood, a theme that they bring forward from debut album Funeral. 'City with No Children' is the most obvious choice to discuss this theme, which is often connected with the idea of accumulation of wealth and urban expansion. Butler describes the city as "a garden left for ruin by a millionaire inside of a private prison." 'Half Light II' culminates with the observation, "This city's changed so much since I was a little child/Pray to God I won't live to see the death of everything that's wild." Childhood becomes a mirror for freedom-- creative and spatial-- that is lost when we buy into the notion of suburban life as an ideal. AF frequently portrays children as inherently wiser than adults because they embrace their own beliefs without molding them to social norms. "My old friends/I can remember when/You cut your hair/I never saw you again/Now the cities we live in/Could be distant stars/and I search for you in every passing car." The friends who cut their hair are the ones who have been lost to the sprawl, "divide[d] into tribes" by the music scene eschewed in 'Rococo.' AF returns to the past, the value of "wasted hours," the simplicity and excitement of receiving letters, biking down streets in the middle of the night.

Meditations on childhood in AF are in a way meditations on their style of music. They've long refused major label contracts and produce dense albums without obvious hit singles; they are the independent children, fleeing the suburbs on their bikes in 'Sprawl II' or tunneling through the neighborhood snow in Funeral's 'Neighborhood I.' So it's no surprise that he redemptive force in The Suburbs comes from the theme of escape, often figurative rather than literal, although the constant return to cars and travel in the lyrics suggests a physical departure from the sprawl too, encouragements to "Grab your mother's keys/we leave tonight." 'Sprawl II' and 'Month of May' comment directly on the creative process of making music and the challenges that arise in a society that demands mass culture. 'Sprawl II' opens with RĂ©gine Chassagne singing, "They heard me singing and they told me to stop/Quit these pretentious things and just punch the clock."

Though creativity can be a challenge in the suburbs, songs about the creation of music are some of the most passionate on the album. 'Month of May' is one of the most rock-oriented songs the group has ever done, though I think I prefer the ebullient synths of 'Sprawl II,' an incredibly perfect match for Chassagne's stage presence. When I describe The Suburbs to people, they often come away with the mistaken impression that it's just a depressing album about the loss of innocence and individuality, but these songs show that it's the opposite-- a mustering of courage to fight against the homogenization of suburbia. It makes me think again about the album as a meditation on the state of music itself, and the resurgence of creative independence now that the state of the industry is changing. In 'Month of May,' "a violent wind [blows] the wires away" as the band contemplates making an album about "2009, 2010...how I felt then." The wires, as a representation of the technological age of music and the confining connectedness of the suburbs, prevent them from making a record until the natural force of the wind, something sublimated by the encroachment of suburban sprawl on the wilderness, destroys them. 'May' is one of the angriest songs on the album but also one of the most hopeful; AF believes that bands have a renewed hope of making the kind of music they want to. There's an opportunity to return to the unstructured innocence and wisdom of childhood.

Having talked so much about the suburbs generally, I should return to Texas. Every other song I could think of about Texas involved some kind of state pride that definitely doesn't translate in The Suburbs. These are songs about cowboys on the range, expansive vistas of desert-- what we imagine when we think of Texas, but which is no longer a reality as it becomes home to massive urban centers like Houston, Dallas, and San Antonio. Perhaps the thematic discrepancy arises in a generation gap; a lot of the other songs about Texas are, expectedly, country, a more traditional genre that's still heavily reliant on old-school music industry practices. It's also important that AF chooses Texas as a touchstone for commentary on the suburbs and uniformity because it's a state where expansion creates such a dichotomy between city and wilderness. Traditionally thought of as a frontier because of its historical significance as a disputed border state, Texas is now conquering itself through constant expansion, eating up its vast spaces with ever-growing cities as it once drained oil in a There Will Be Blood-style orgy of consumption. No wonder AF worries about sprawl with Texans chomping down massive amounts of land and energy even as other parts of the nation cut back. Known for its desire to be bigger than anywhere else, Texas is the perfect antithesis for a band who doesn't want to be bigger, but just wants to be themselves. Texan devotion to industry and expansion, with total disregard for beauty or personality, makes it an ideal villain in a story about retaining the past and its values.

As a side note, it's interesting to me that one city in Texas has surfaced as a center for the kind of creative freedom that AF embraces. Austin, home of breakout-band showcase SXSW, has become an enclave of musical talent spanning a remarkable array of genres. Austin's music scene has the kind of organic feel that's missing in Houston generally. As a commentary, The Suburbs could be a call for more development in that direction as well as a general reminiscence about the past of music, something that makes the album especially meaningful as a Grammy winner over mass-produced musicians like Lady Gaga, Eminem, and Katy Perry. The layers of meaning in this album are what makes it so special, and I hope I've captured at least some of that in this entry-- childhood, creativity, cities, suburbia, nostalgia-- it's more to take in than perhaps can be said in one inconsequential blog post. It took AF a double album to say it all, so maybe I'm just being presumptuous thinking I can even start to understand. But that's the beauty of their music-- when I listen to it, I feel like I do.

Having written this, I feel like I've barely scratched the surface of what AF has to say; I'm sure I'll come back to this entry with edits. The only real way to understand everything this band wants to tell you is to hear the music itself. This blog isn't really about music recommendations, but if you haven't heard The Suburbs, give it a shot. Give all of their albums a shot. Arcade Fire aren't signed to a major label, they're making the kind of music they want to make, and it shows in their enthusiasm and the depth of their creativity. Plus, even Kanye West tweeted about how much he loved them after the Grammys last night and he hates everyone, so you know they must be something special.

Tracks
Sprawl II (live)
The Wilderness Downtown (interactive film for 'We Used to Wait')
Suburban War