There really wasn’t one album from 2012 that owned my ears the same way that Destroyer’s Kaputt and Titus Andronicus’ The Monitor did the last two years. Barring a long-winded tangent about why it’s nonsense for anyone to decide what were the best sounds recorded within a twelve-month period with no criteria whatsoever, suffice it to say that those records were my favorites for two reasons. One, because I enjoyed listening to them to death, and two, because they represented something greater than a collection of ten to fifteen songs. There were a few albums from this year that had a little bit of both of those qualities, but always more of one and a little weak on the other.
With Allelujah! Don’t Bend! Ascend!, Godspeed You! Black Emperor captured something contemporary in a way that most people want to call “political,” but which is an inaccurate term for it. As instrumental music with few words to give clues, the record is presented as a bit of a puzzle. In an interview with The Guardian, they said, “figure it out yourself, all the clues are there.”
The biggest hint is probably the title of the first track, “Mladic.” Most reviews of the album I’ve read don’t even mention that Ratko Mladić was the “Butcher of Bosnia,” a military leader wanted for crimes against humanity and genocide. The crimes were “supposedly” committed during the Bosnian War from 1992-1995 until he was captured in 2011. His trial began in May of this year at the international tribunal in the Hauge, Netherlands, but is currently on a six month hiatus because the defense accused the prosecution of failing to disclose certain information. The rest of the puzzle perhaps is unwound in the strange charts and images in the album’s packaging, including the odd triangle that looks strangely similar to a bad early 2000s hard-rock band logo.
One of the most quotable blips from the aforementioned interview is, “Things are not OK. Music should be about things are not OK, or else shouldn’t exist at all.” While the album’s confusing commentary of modern warfare and human rights is interesting, what’s maybe more interesting is the connection of politics to culture just with the record being a piece of popular media.
It’s a similar idea to the insert for their last album, Yanqui U.X.O., which contained a diagram that connected the major record companies to arms manufacturers. The best art of our time will be the stuff that is more than just a collection of pretty songs, but that captures something more about the society and culture.
Yet, while all of this is compelling and gives the listener a lot to think about during those long instrumental expanses, I can only listen to seven minutes of helicopter bagpipes a certain number of times. One, actually. The number of times is one.
On the opposite end of the scale, the album I listened to the most this year was Grizzly Bear’s Shields. Yet, most of Grizzly Bear’s appeal has always been that they made “chill,” accessible music. Admittedly by the band themselves in an interview with Pitchfork, Chris Taylor said, “There were lyrics in previous albums that seemed to have no meaning whatsoever. And that always really annoyed me. We agreed it’d be really important and awesome if we could just try and make all the lyrics tell something.”
What they came out with was a personal and introspective album that seems to be a bit of a confessional about the distance between people, particularly the intentional distance. Emotional shields. “A Simple Answer” repeats a mantra that could seem like existentialism at first, with the casual ear tuning into Taylor repeating, “No wrong or right / Just do whatever you like.” Yet, the simple answer is that the mantra is a personal excuse, with one of the preceding lines being, “Move on, let’s face / that all you trust is a cynical phrase.”
Yet, for the most part, the album is just a wonderfully textured piece of music. Part of what can make an album one of your favorites isn’t just pretty music, but the way that the music reaches out into the world and into your life to create situations and memories with people that you care about that you wouldn’t trade for anything. I had the chance to cross seeing Grizzly Bear off of my bucket list at the Pitchfork music festival in Paris, which is one of the things that helped make Shields something more for me. Either way, it’s great to see the band thinking beyond just playing instruments well and it would be even better to see them go deeper.
- Mount Eerie – Ocean Roar
One band that had a pretty solid balance of meaningful music that’s also pleasing to listen to was Mount Eerie. It was part of the odd coincidence verging on would-be conspiracy as one of the many artists to release two albums in 2012. Yet, what makes Mount Eerie distinct is the two album are related, one not complete without the other.
The most famous work by songwriter Phil Elverum was under another pseudonym, being The Microphones. The material released during his “Mount Eerie period” has been more abstract and less poppy than the spontaneous, diverse, and catchy albums with The Microphones and have seemingly been more focused on nature.
With Clear Moon, Elverum very bluntly examined and addressed his output and the response to it. In “Through the Trees, Part II,” he sings, “I meant all of my songs not as a picture of the woods, but just to remind myself that I briefly live.” Even the multi-layered guitar riff and the “part II” in the title are call backs to earlier Elverum days. Yet, it’s not returning to techniques that made a cult following for fans of the album The Glow, Part II, that makes Clear Moon and Ocean Roar great sister albums, but how he uses it to construct a greater theme. Clarity vs. obfuscation, the moon vs. the ocean, bright light vs. white noise, accessibility vs. reclusiveness, understanding vs. confusion. It’s a multi-faceted theme that is pondered in a lot of Elverum’s songs, but never so directly and deeply as with these two albums. The conflict is not only dealt with in regards to understanding the universe, but also as a recording artist, trying to balance audience expectations and abstract artistic compulsions. It’s also something that I talked to Elverum about a bit in our interview earlier this year, which can be read here.