Review Summary: Your voice is swallowing my soul soul soul soul soul soul soul soul soul soul soul soul soul...
Sometimes - usually when I’m drunk - I think about life and I think about death. And what it all means. Not so much the physical stuff, the big bang, the primeval soup, the transmutability of matter and energy - I get all that, sort of. No, I’m talking about emotions that well inside me from nowhere - where do they come from? And where do they go? Like when you’re in love with someone and the physical world is ...transformed. Lit up. Transfigured. By what exactly, by something intangible? And then you break up and reality goes blurred, denuded, flattened. As if something non-physical -spirituality?- has just gone and turned off the lights, left the building, leaving you trapped inside. A coldness. Empty.
This is a spiritual record. The album title references an obscure religious cult. The lyrics are littered with biblical connotations, studded with souls, saints, sinners, priests, nuns, angels. Listening to this is like entering a cathedral, a cathedral of sound. Footsteps echo on the cold stones, reverberant, as choral chants ascend to the vaults, strings and horns uplifting to the infinite firmament beyond. Surely a celebration of the beauty of life, of new life? But also haunted. Candles flick spangles of light onto walls, creating shadows, hiding and revealing all and nothing simultaneously. You notice the fuzzy dissonance, the buzzing taglines, the reverential drones.
Dessner’s arrangements feel as if every note has been stripped down, honed and refitted, much more tightly knit and focussed than the jazz-tinged, elegant rambles of Boxer
. If that album evokes the world of F. Scott Fitzgerald and The Great Gatsby
, lost in the past, High Violet
with its themes of displacement summons up Cormac McCarthy’s The Road
. Just as in that novel, the father-child relationship is explored, Berninger intuiting a physical world invested with a child’s fears, full of ghosts and brain eating monsters, an Alice-in-Wonderland reality, where we walk with spiders, are carried off by swarms of bees.
In fact, I’ve never known an album to brood so on the struggles of parenthood. Every song seems to allude in some oblique fashion to a creaking family unit beset by the strains of a screaming baby; and the child’s pain. In “Anyone’s Ghost” it’s as if the child itself has become a ghost, a ghost of the love that once belonged in the parent’s relationship, a vestige of a once living thing. The effect is gut-wrenching (“you said it was not in my heart, it was. You said it should tear a kid apart, it does.”)
But amidst this domiciled carnage, the skeletal runt of the litter “Runaway” declares an unequivocal commitment from father to child to stick around and see things through. “Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks” goes further, spelling out a profound shift in Weltanschauung. What matters in life? Money, sex, your career? Berninger opts for something more humdrum - just being there for your child; looking after those close to you - and achieves in that basic aspiration a transcendence from the “evil”, “confident liar” with his “shi
tty thoughts” to at last some kind of affirmation, at last some kind of (and here’s that word again) spirituality:
“Cry baby cry. Oh the waters are rising, it’s all been forgiven, the swans are a-swimmin. I’ll explain everything to the geeks: all the very best of us string ourselves up for love. All the very best of us string ourselves up for love. All the very best of us string ourselves up for love. All the very best of us string ourselves up for love.”