Last year, Ana Marie Cox sold me on a band called The Twilight Sad. A foursome from Scotland, the band writes intelligent, poetic songs and then uses guitar distortion, echo, and reverb to bring them to powerful emotional apexes. Cox tweeted that she was about to see The Twilight Sad live and linked to one of their songs. I was blown away.
But what I also found interesting was that when I started researching reviews about the band, the critics all seemed fixated on describing the sound of the band and comparing them with other bands. No one was approaching the deep moral dramas that the Twilight Sad explore in their music. It’s not surprising that rock critics, who consider themselves the vanguard of liberalism, would reflect liberalism’s moral blind spots. It’s a disservice not only to the human conscience but to the music, which deserves better.
Many pieces about the Twilight Sad include references to the melancholy of the band’s sound and the lyrics of singer James Graham, who has hinted that the often-oblique lyrics refer to things that he experienced growing up in Scotland. That would seem like rich soil to explore issues of human suffering and the ability to alchemize such pain into a divine art — music. Instead, critics only write about how the Twilight Sad’s songs affect their standing in the pop universe. There are lots of examples, but the best is probably this review by Jonathan Garrett, from the respected rock critic site Pitchfork, of the band’s single “I Became a Prostitute”:
Twilight Sad songs have always seemed to teeter on the brink of broader appeal — probably because a fair number of their influences, U2 and My Bloody Valentine chief among them, reside on the more melodic and, some might say, commercial end of the guitar-rock spectrum. But if they truly aim for something universal, their dissonance-ravaged guitar tones frequently object. Yet it’s precisely the conflicted nature of their songs, the tension between commercial impulse and arty recalcitrance, that provides the drama. “I Became a Prostitute”, rather than making good on its title’s threat, plays like a sly acknowledgement of the internal discord. Erupting with a massive, sky-scraping roar of feedback, the song quickly pulls back, ceding the spotlight to James Graham’s vocals. For the most part, “Prostitute” is content to vacillate back and forth between the urgent opening gambit and the more sinister verses. But it’s the closing stretch that shows the strain, with guitarist Andy MacFarlane taking the central hook and twisting it into a series of unrecognizable shapes. The song doesn’t end so much as drop off, but true to form, they never let it break.
One needn’t be a born-again Christian awaiting the rapture to feel that there is something missing here. “I Became a Prostitute” is a staggeringly powerful song, indeed a work of art. And the radiating guitars, sorrowful vocals and close, tight drums work not only as a beautiful wall of noise in and of itself, but as the aural expression of a great moral tragedy — the loss of a person’s God-given dignity to the sex trade. The tension in the song has nothing to do with the Twilight Sad’s position between hipster favorites and U2-sized superstars (what a facile and idiotic reading!). The tension, indeed the near chaos, of “I Became a Prostitute” is between what our conscience tells us is right and wrong and the horrible tragedy of what can happen to us in the real world. More, the sound may reflect the moral meltdown in singer and bandleader James Graham’s experience. He has said his songs are about stuff that happened to him growing up. It’s possible he and some buddies may have gone to a prostitute, and the experience left him feeling morally soiled. That’s not a stretch when you consider the lyrics:We’re all fine in the back of our minds
As we can do what we like
We could be with you tonight
And if we bleed you dry
We’re taking half you time
And taking all your tide
You are the bearer of a womb without love
But oh you could have had it all
Is that what you said?
Is that what you said on a low ride?
How could anyone reduce this to a puerile debate about “commercial impulse vs. arty recalcitrance”? This is like when Egypt recently erupted in revolution, and back home all the pundits could talk about was how it would affect President Obama. It is a sentiment that is completely removed from the real drama at hand. It’s also brings to mind a line of Chesterton’s: “Do not be proud of the fact that your grandmother was shocked at something which you are accustomed to seeing or hearing without being shocked…It may be that your grandmother was an extremely lively and vital animal and that you are a paralytic.” Or a rock critic.
In 2010, Ana Marie Cox reported from the South by Southwest music festival for GQ. In that piece she wrote the following: “When I stopped writing about music and started writing about politics and new media, I didn’t just slowly become the kind of person that finds new music primarily via Gossip Girl, I knew I was trading one subculture obsessed with minutia and hierarchy for two others. Both with arguably higher stakes.” But there is no higher stake than the state of our souls, something that politics can touch on, yes, and “new media” has no opinion on, but that music can explore with awesome power — if we can just overcome those tired tropes about how a band’s addition of a third cymbal to their drum kit means their indie cred has gone from 8.7 to 7.9. It always saddens me when music critics dismiss a pop song as being a frivolous piece of fluff about love or a boy meeting a girl. Those moments that alter our lives are not fluff, but the great moral tests of our lives, the time when we have experiences that determine our character and our response to love. As “I Became a Prostitute” shows, our quest for that love can sometimes lead us to the demonic. If only our music wags had the guts to confront and explore that reality.
The song and video can be found here.
Mark Judge is the author of A Tremor of Bliss: Sex, Catholicism, and Rock ‘n’ Roll.