Monday, October 2, 2017

Past Greatness: September '17

Note: Due to an increased workload, Past Greatness will unfortunately only be one album going forward. This may change if it's an unusually slow month.

Welcome to the tenth installment of Past Greatness, a monthly series I'll be doing showcasing great, older works. All albums listed below are of 8+ quality. This month's album is an 80's anti-capitalistic opus gone awry

Laurie Anderson | Big Science
1981 | Experimental | Listen

Spearheaded by David Byrne and the Talking Heads in the early 80's, capitalism in America found a worth combatant in the form of New York's artistic elite. Mounting fear over traditional institutions gaining an unforeseen edge over the myriad of American identities grew alongside the faceless skyscrapers holding thousands of nine to fivers. Byrne, and others like Ian Curtis, Elvis Costello, or Laurie Anderson, mocked that culture by acclimating to their clothing style and rigid characteristics. The music, however, was another story. At times outlandish, at others bawdy, the Alternative scene of the early 80's united under the common desire to lampoon the habitual. Our current batch of Indie artists could learn a thing or two from their farce. Despite a plethora of classic albums emerging from that era, none set out to achieve more than Big Science*. A necessary asterisk considering it's but just a fraction of Anderson's real magnum opus: United States Live, a career-defining performance that analyzed, through dark and humorous dialogue, each and every aspect of modern America. It clocks in at over four hours (eight in the original show). Acting as a succinct summation of her grandiose theorizing, Big Science's eight tracks fail to reach 40 minutes. Despite lasting no longer than your average album, Big Science is a landmark work of pure art, one that feels larger than life because it initially was.

Anderson's eccentric approach to music has been noted on numerous occasions. Rather than singing to convey emotion, she talks to declare it. Her accentuations a calling card, noting the punchline like a comic strip does when bolding an otherwise all-caps blurb. From one eye, she's a comedian, revealing the butt of humanity's joke. From another, she's a poet, lamenting the society she's been thrust in. And from another, she's an artist, examining the capitalistic formality with discombobulated austerity. Her Avant-Garde songwriting clashes with that of pure Pop, resulting in a project that's true to the core definition of Experimental music. Confounding as it is systematic, Big Science darts across a litany of genres, feeling most comfortable when actively searching for the comfort. Now sure, that's likely a result of three-plus hours of art being trimmed to the core, but the final result thrives because of that absence. Wheres United States Live could be described as a performance art piece, there's no simple label to append to Big Science. One moment Anderson's chastising an ex-lover whose succumb to convention over squawking bagpipes ('Sweaters'), the next she's contemplating the concept of maintained composure over arctic, Brian Eno-inspired Ambient synth rays ('Walking And Falling.')

Each idea she presents, simultaneously obtuse and welcoming, offers enough intrigue to be endlessly providing. Somehow, despite the ease in which Big Science could be seen as pretentious rhetoric, because of Anderson's crystalized vocals and homegrown demeanor, her conundrums never aggravate or irritate. She treats complex thought like a children's riddle, combining food for thought with tongue-in-cheek one-liners. "I think we should put mountains here. Otherwise, what are the characters gonna fall off of?" on 'Big Science' is a wonderful example of that. Regardless of how dark the connotations she constantly presents are, Anderson's oftentimes-juvenile humor offsets the shrewd and honest critiques elsewhere. It's perhaps my favorite aspect of Big Science, the fact that a track like 'Example #22,' which features the German language, unilateral percussion, and reversed vocals, ends with a bombastic climax that's quite literally Anderson just hollering "NA-NA-NA-NANANA." 

Follow-up track 'Let X=X, It Tango' accomplishes the same feat with an even greater impact, detailing a jovial letter written by someone who's experiencing some form of mental anguish. Conflicting doesn't begin to describe the mid-track switch, where a seemingly cordial Anderson thwarts presumption by flipping personal gratitudes into the transfixed line "I feel like I am in a burning building, and I gotta go." There's been times, deep into the appreciation of art, where I've cried to that moment. 'Let X=X, It Tango' is an unforgettable illustration of depression, one where the exterior bears no resemblance to the despair and hopelessness contained in that shell. It would also be Big Science's best track if it weren't for 'O Superman (For Massenet),' Anderson's crowning jewel. Much has been said about 'O Superman's' structure, especially Anderson's "ah" laying the foundation for the eight-plus minute epic. However, the prowess of 'O Superman' lies not there, but in the artist's depiction of a warmongering America. An entire dissertation can, and likely has, been written about the prophetic passage "here come the planes," but even that only scratches the surface of 'O Superman's' depth. 

An authoritative force assumes the role of mother, transmitting a message of imminent doom. This militaristic entity, through a facetious familial bond, intends to convert citizens into combatants. Anderson's execution of twisting logic and sentimental reconfiguration comes through handily by song's end when the following excerpt is received: "Cause when love is gone, there's always justice. And when justice is gone, there's always force. And when force is gone, there's always Mom. Hi Mom!" The trick then, forgotten through strenuous brainwashing, inevitable works when the protagonist welcomes mom, under the presumption that it's her paternal caregiver, with open arms. If anything, 'O Superman' is an accurate portrayal of the power of propaganda manipulation. Many can easily point to North Korea as a blunt comparison to 'O Superman,' but that would defeat the purpose of Anderson's critique of America's own blind patriotism. There's few experiences in music, yet alone art, that compare to 'O Superman.' And really, when taking a few steps back, the same can be said of Big Science. Production that veers on the side of irregularity, language simultaneously stilted and farcical, instrumentation not dampened by borders, and a charismatic leader who perceives the world with an acute lens.

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