Review Summary: Floating urgently.
I find it curious when a form of media is referred to as "life-affirming," although I can certainly understand why a critic would want to use the phrase (and I can't rule out the possibility that I might have used it once or twice in the past either). I've heard plenty of albums and seen plenty of televisions shows and movies and read enough books to know that those things can indeed make me incredibly happy and fill me with a sense of purpose I rarely feel so strongly, but it never lasts. To me, life-affirming goes hand in hand with life-changing, and I can't say that any piece of music or cinema or literature has truly changed my life. Certain pieces of media have molded or outright changed my tastes, sure, but my life? No matter how large a part media plays in my life, it has never wholly changed it. But when I read a description of Laura Stevenson and the Cans’s Sit Resist that described it as life-affirming (on the band’s own website, incidentally), I unconsciously agreed and then realized that I usually scoff at the term. However, by then it was too late, and so I put the record on and listened again and kept on agreeing.
Sit Resist has not changed my life. The reason I would concede that the album should be described with terms like "life-affirming" is because the way I react to the music hasn't faded over a few hundred listens, and after that many listens I also am still unable to describe the reactions in the first place. I think maybe that's what life-affirming is supposed to mean - that some form of art can make you feel with such intensity that you feel like you're bursting, and you can't slow down long enough to pinpoint particular emotions. You're going in every direction at once, very fast and very far. It's all internal, of course. Circumstances don't actually change. The most music can ever do is act as a sort of painkiller, staving off reality for a little while longer. I think that now, but I haven't always. There are a lot of people for whom music is the be-all and end-all, and they will defend their tastes as vehemently as they would defend their own life. I don't mean to portray people like that in a negative light (I was one of them for a very long time), but I honestly think that people like that are missing something, that they can't truly enjoy the music that they say is their life. Getting your hackles up because someone defamed a band you love isn't passion. Passion for music is being able to shrug at someone and walk away when they defame a band you love, because you're secure in the fact that you love what you love and they love what they love and it's not worth discussing.
Those are all also reasons why I would very rarely describe something as "universal," another word that critics fawn over. Nothing can be loved by everyone. But there are definitely things that come close – one of the true joys of being a critic is finding them – and Sit Resist does. It’s easier to use that descriptor in this case because Sit Resist won't even come close to being heard by everyone, but such is the nature of criticism, and that doesn't mean the word means any less. It's nigh-universal in part because everything is so easy on the ears - Laura Stevenson's voice is one of the most gorgeous in all of indie, and the music some of the most inventive - but more than that, Sit Resist, on every single listen, seems like a definitive piece of music. There are thematic snatches of just about everything that makes music great - heartbreak, nostalgia, and longing come to mind first. The majority of good music has those things in spades, but this album seems apart from others. It's hard to determine whether it's because these themes are presented better in Laura's lyrics or if they shine through more effectively because of the music's inherent beauty. It is quite probably the latter, because the more I think about it, beauty is the major theme here, the one that overlaps and defines all the others: the beauty of heartbreak, the beauty of nostalgia, the beauty of longing.
That's what sets this album apart from its predecessor, A Record. Laura and the band never seemed willing to completely abandon her roots in Bomb the Music Industry!, which resulted in moments like the end of "Mouthbreather" and "Landslide Song/The Dig," both of which were great songs in their own right and fine at the time, but now that we have Sit Resist, I can't help feeling that this is what Laura Stevenson and the Cans were always wanting to be. "Barnacles" keeps the horns that were present in "Landslide Song" but rearranges them in a more traditional manner ("Finally purified or whatever that means," Laura sings), turning down the volume and turning up the synchronization and harmonizing, resulting in a truly ingenious musical moment when all the instruments drop out except for the horns. It helps that the band was able to record so many songs, even if half of them are a bit short. A Record sometimes felt like simply a lengthy EP, sort of an extended version of the Holy Ghost! EP, but Sit Resist is fully realized and then some. Everything seems perfectly in place. The deliberate dissonance in the acoustic guitar picking at the beginning of "Montauk Monster" is resolved into beauty in such a simple manner, but it seems genius anyway, and the fact that you can hear the band at the end of the song laughing makes the song even better because you can tell it was written by a group of friends who are having fun first and being inventive second. "8:08" is one of the most gorgeous indie songs written in some time, which is saying something, seeing as how it finds itself on an entire album of gorgeous songs. It sounds like something Antony Hegarty would write in his most inspired moments, but it's also signature Laura, so much so that any comparison falls short. It is longing and regret and urgency personified, the phrase “I’m sorry” transposed into song and given a backbone of strings. The same could also be said of "Halloween Pts. 1 & 2" and closer "I See Dark," with its swellings of feedback that almost seem out of place until the song's second half, which sounds, somehow, more pure because of the noise that preceded it.
Although “8:08” is the album’s best song, “Master of Art” is the most interesting, both in sound and in the way it represents the album as the first single released. A common criticism lobbed at Sit Resist is that it cannot be definitive (or a “classic”) because it sounds, at times, too cute or too innocuous. A cursory listen to “Master of Art” would seem to confirm that opinion. The song presents a pretty tongue-in-cheek attitude toward Laura Stevenson’s career aspirations. She half-jokingly suggests that a man wait for her until she is “a master of art,” until she’s “learned everything.” I guess that’s part of the reason why people are content to call the album cute, but that’s only because they aren’t listening hard enough. The monumental amount of tenderness and uncertainty present in “Master of Art” is one of the album’s most heartbreaking aspects. It may be dressed up as indie-pop, but there are confessions in the song that most indie artists never even dream of making in their music – namely, that Laura knows she will never be considered the best and she will never be the most well-known, and she wonders what she will be worth to people without those claims to fame. For all its illusions of openness, indie is an insufferably blasé genre, and it is Laura’s willingness to lay herself bare that sets her apart. By the time the album addresses the interminable wait for people to notice what she’s doing (in “The Wait” and “The Weight”), Laura is not nearly so ready to poke fun at herself as she did in “Master of Art.” This album, given the right amount of attention, can be so much more than innocuous and benign; it can spread hints of darkness into the best of moods because, as Herman Melville would say, it’s impossible to really feel and appreciate something unless you feel a little bit of its opposite as well.
A few years ago, Horace Engdahl, the head of the award jury for the Nobel Prize, stated his low opinion of American literature and the unlikelihood of an American winning the prize any time soon. He described America as "too isolated" and "too insular," and I would agree, in a way. American literature largely deals with American issues and subjects and cherry-picks topics and characters from other countries when it needs to. But one could use that same description of American insularity and isolation for music and I think someone would be hard-pressed to find that it shows American music in a negative light. Take, for example, “Red Clay Roots,” a song devoid of instrumentation, made up entirely of Laura’s multi-tracked vocals. At times, one can almost hear the twang of a slide guitar in the background, but it isn’t actually there. That’s the whole point of Sit Resist. The listener completes the picture. By itself, the album is great. Combine it with a listener, with a human heart, and it becomes classic and definitive. Most American art – this album included – relies on nostalgia, because the American people don't want to be transported to an entirely different place. They want to be transported to a place that's different but not so different that they can't recognize it. American music, in particular, relies largely on the nostalgia of heartbreak. It is here that insularity has been a good thing. Would Laura Stevenson make music like "Red Clay Roots" if she had been born and raised somewhere other than America? Of course not, partly because the song is steeped entirely in Americana, but more importantly, the song, like all great art, is both a mirror and a portal. You see yourself and you see the subject of the art and sometimes they blend together. I think of Horace Engdahl, who is probably not as crotchety and elitist as the above quotes make him sound, and I wonder what he would think of a song like "Red Clay Roots" and a record like Sit Resist. I think of how these songs would look in notation form, and I can see them leaping off the page and flying through the imagination as well as the words on the pages of any novel, American or otherwise. I can see them changing lives.