Friday, 22 July 2011

MUSIC: The Magnetic Fields, The Charm of the Highway Strip (1993)

MUSIC: The Magnetic Fields, The Charm of the Highway Strip (1993)

Given that so many of the artists tagged “Alt.Country” actually consider themselves Rock or Indie, and most grew up with Punk, Hardcore, and 70s Soft Rock, the question of authenticity goes out the window; in fact, you could almost say that Alt Country is Inauthentic Country. For those involved, you might as well use synths and drum-machines alongside your slide and fiddles (like Smog, or Sparklehorse), and in a sense you are being true to what it means to be "country", in the 21st century.

Years before the question of tracing lines of influence ever bothered me, **The Magnetic Fields** already seemed to have made an Alt.Country classic, in the form of The Charm of the Highway Strip (1993). In many respects the most coherent concept album in The Magnetic Fields’ oeuvre, Highway Strip was the first album Stephin Merritt sang in his own voice, having delegated vocal duties to Susan Anway, on _Distant Plastic Trees_ (1989) and _The Wayward Bus_ (1991). Their, her stylized vocals underscored the irony of a chanteuse singing these ‘Gay & Loud’ songs (as Merritt called his publishing company). The seeds of Merritt’s interest in Folk and Country as a conceptual counterpoint to his Futurist electronica are apparent early on, though, in songs like ‘100,000 Fireflies’, which closes _Distant Plastic Trees_ –

I have a mandolin – I play it all night long
It makes me want to want to kill myself
I also have a dobro, made in some mountain range
Sounds like a mountain range in love
But when I turn up the tone on my electric guitar,
I’m afraid of the dark without you close to me

At the end of the song, Merritt hints that Country music’s a state of mind, and the country itself (the boondocks; Hicksville; Nowhere, Idaho) is just a metaphor for an unhappy couple’s solitude:

You won’t be happy with me, but give me one more chance
You won’t be happy anyway
Why do we still live here, in this repulsive town?
All our friends are in New York.
Why do we keep shrieking, when we mean soft things?
We should be whispering all the time.

Given that Merritt’s made “a career from being blue” (as he jokingly sings on _69 Love-Songs_) it’s no surprise that when he first chose to sing in his own voice, Merritt adopted a country-singer persona, even if he only kept it up for a whole album, on _Highway Strip_. It’s the music of misery, after all. If the irony weren’t glaringly obvious, consider the fact that he also released _Holiday_ in 1993, to represent his carefree electro-pop side, as on _The Wayward Bus_ (and in spite of its title taken from John Steinbeck – him again!)

In fact, there’s a more sincere, and more sophisticated engagement with the traditions of Country Music than many in the Alt. Country genre. Released three years before David Lynch’s _Lost Highway_ (1996), Merritt’s album reflects a longstanding preoccupation in American culture that screenwriter Barry Gifford picked up on, when he sent the split-minded protagonists along the lost highway, and into the desert, to consult the vampiric figures feeding on them (respectively: providing them fast women… and the eyes of the crowd on them, until each addiction destroyed them). Like Gifford (himself a peripheral figure in the later years of the Beat Generation), Merritt would have been thinking of Hank Williams’ ‘Lost Highway’ when he wrote the opening track, ‘Lonely Highway’, and there’s a gradual build-up to a complex mythology, from that romantically exaggerated, but otherwise realist, setting. The opening-verse of Merritt’s opening-song sounds straight (i.e. literal), unless you assume there’s a camp pun on the name of the town / the name of a (male) lover:

I’m never going back to Jackson
I couldn’t bear to show my face
I nearly killed you with my drinking
Wouldn’t be caught dead in that place

So far, so Country, but then we get a stronger taste of Surrealism, in the second track. Remember, Surrealism drew on the richly metaphoric poetry of exotic cultures, in an age of European pillaging, but it also drew on the urban experience of images and ideas colliding in the metropolis: the weirdness (i.e. seemingly fated meaningfulness) of chance encounters; the unexpectedly poetic beauty of scientific neologisms like “magnetic fields” for André Breton & co. This is ‘Long Vermont Roads’ –

Your eyes are long Vermont roads
With a tacky song on the radio
And your eyes are toothless young men in Tennessee

But after all those trains, and all those breakdown lanes
The roads don’t love you, and still they won’t pretend to

Country singers love their puns… but goddamnit do they hate faggots, which makes their forced analogies so appealing to pilfer, albeit affectionately, for a Noo Yawk Bohemian like Merritt. In that second verse, Merritt transforms “breakdown lanes” into another symbol – part metaphor, part synecdoche – after all, it’s the place you literally pull over, the hard-shoulder you cry on, when you’re driving away from your lover (and maybe it’s where you pick up hitchers for a good time, too). By the third song, we’re truly on the Lost Highway:

Some roads are only seen at night
Ghost roads – nothing but neon signs
But sometimes the neon gas gets free
And turns into walking dead like me

It’s possible, even likely, that Merritt was thinking of the vampire symbolism in Bret Easton Ellis’ _Rules of Attraction_ and _The Informers_ when he wrote many of these songs. Gifford’s vampire had its own duality (i.e. represented forms of addiction that were both literal and figural), and Ellis focused on the dealer-as-vampire (also, the emotionally-cold user-as-vampire), but either way the vampire is one of the most polymorphous and perverse of symbols, in a psyche that’s already supposed to be polymorphously perverse (sez Freud). By using vampires again in the next track, ‘I Have the Moon’, Merritt defamiliarizes hackneyed notions of eternal love:

…we have walked in ancient times
And we’ve been burned for many crimes
We have ended many lives
But we never really died…

…all of which is gushingly sad, drawled out in Merritt’s world-weary tone, but reminds us all (as listeners) how many people we seem to have been, each time we embark on a new love, and each time we realize we’re those lovers – we’re going through the motions that put us on a path that stretches back to the beginning of time. Sometimes old songs – not just country songs – can do this for us young’uns, sick of contemporary schmaltz; they make you realize people felt the same things decades ago, people who “were born and then they lived and then they died / seems so unfair, I want to cry” (to quote Stephen Morrissey). From a heterosexual perspective, the song’s doubly moving, because it’s the first one in which the singer (or his persona) comes out at the end, revealing the vampire as a double metaphor of love that should never die (but flames up and shrieks when it does), and the homosexual inhabiting a nocturnal world, whose lover may not have come out:

I’d like to come and comfort you
But I’d be blinded by the blue
You have the sun, I have the moon
You’re bound to die under the sun
But I’ll be doomed to carry on
You have become like other men
But let me kiss you once again
You have the sun, I have the moon

The album isn’t all appropriations of Country music, to serve the interests of listeners (and a songwriter) supposedly excluded from the genre. Leaving aside the modern classics for hip young metrosexuals, Merritt digs up Arthur Miller’s Willie Loman, who every primary-school child knows is the symbol of aspirational but downtrodden America. In ‘Crowd of Drifters’ Merritt doesn’t specify the demons at any point, only that:

Sometimes the road is too long
You meet all kinds of people
Some of them cast no shadows
They have no reflections
Take a look in your photobook
I’m not there anymore

I was a travelling salesman
I got lost on the back roads
Fell in with a crowd of drifters
Sometimes the sun is too bright and
It burns you like acid…

Without forcing the analogy, Merritt tricks the listener into hearing wage-slavery as spiritual death. Maybe the anonymous people on the road “cast no shadows” because they’re thin – emaciated by poor diets and broken sleep in Motel rooms – or they only come out at night. Maybe, their lack of ‘reflections’ may be a lack of capacity for self-reflexion, or a trope for their one-dimensional existence (no depth to their characters; no Ego or Id, only the Super-Ego piloting them along).

Is the singer no longer “in your photobook” because he was never quite there, or his face has ceased to have any meaning, to be noticed? Has he been taken out in some frustrated gesture of banishment, and then forgotten – he was written off so long ago? There’s something delirious, sleep-deprived, early-morning dream-logic about the lack of resolution. The burning sun in the second verse, again, doesn’t force the vampire metaphor: it also captures the sting of the late-afternoon sun reflecting off fenders and hoods onto weary eyes.

This guy doesn’t have nothing though: he has a car; he has that good old phallic symbol of autonomy and masculinity. Continuing his symbolic trajectory through American myth-history, Merritt introduces a female character in ‘Fear of Trains’ (track 7), a song that would be almost academic in its exhuming of white men’s guilt, if it weren’t for its jaunty train rhythm… although even that manages to be pointed; the use of trains being class-coded, a mark of social stratification, and an instrument of economic subjugation:

It was the Army train that took her Daddy from her
It was the Bible train that took her Momma too
And that high loud whistle made her horse run away
But the straw that broke the camel’s back was you

It was the Government train that took away her childhood
It was the KKK that took away her past
It was the white man’s will that hers be broken
But that barefoot girl could run too fast

In ‘When the Open Road Is Closing In’, the singer has simply become the road; realizing that the highway is the beginning and the endpoint of automation: curbing your life to a straight line, and making you one-dimensional in the process. The sequencing of the album isn’t strictly (reverse) chronological, but its penultimate track suggests that The Charm of the Highway Strip is only slightly removed from The Charm of the Railway Track, which came before. On the rails, the destination is a vanishing point that only the driver can see, while the passengers are looking at a procession of blurred images. On the Lonely Highway, every driver may be isolated in their metal shell, but the passengers on a train are often just as lonely among strangers, and lack the comforting illusion of autonomy. There’s not much to say about the final instrumental, but given the historic parallels between the events of 80 years ago, and the events of 2008 – 2009, a track entitled ‘Dust Bowl’ is a poignant message that where we’re coming from (historically) is often where we’re going.

Finally, if there is as strong a connection to Bret Easton Ellis as I’ve suggested, Merritt must have loved the fact he got to put a “Merge” sign on the back of his minimalist sleeve – alluding simultaneously to Kraftwerk’s _Autobahn_ and the dark punning in Less Than Zero, not to mention subsequent novels about spiritual, cultural, and moral vacuity in contemporary America. In the novel, the narrator ponders Freeway etiquette (“people are afraid to merge”) without ever thinking of his insight as an epiphany. Like Ellis, Merritt more than once transforms ghosts and vampires from the stock figures of horror-movies (personifying guilty memories or predatory sexuality) into emblems of distinctly fin-de-siecle anxieties: ghostliness as emptiness, and the vampire as insatiable, unfeeling consumer, drained by the late-capitalist economy. Sounds like an Alt.Country album to me, and a classic one at that…

[slightly edited from previous publication on DiS]

No comments:

Post a Comment