Is there anything more Scandinavian than a song about reindeer? I’m not sure how many reindeer pulks you’d find around modern-day Stockholm, but they’re still a fixture in Lapland and adjoining regions. Americans accept Santa’s reindeer as a piece of pop surrealism; in Scandinavia making a caribou carry your shit is just as realistic as having a horse do it. More so, really. Horses don’t do that great in the arctic. Anyway. What I’m saying is, this is a moment of cultural difference right here. The Knife are a Swedish group who are mostly concerned with universal things than know no borders, like love, dancing and lasagna. As it should be, since music is supposed to be cross-cultural and unifying like nothing else. But then you get a song that’s highly specific like this one, and it reminds you that these people live very different lives somewhere quite far across the world, and they get to see and do things that you don’t have access to, like hanging out with reindeer.
Here’s a song that I recognize from the first millisecond of the first chord. God knows I’ve spend enough hours in my life listening to Lucinda Williams’ Essence. It’s one of my go-to crying-on-the-floor blues records, though I haven’t needed that outlet in a long time. Funny how crying on the floor stops being fun after a few turns ’round the block. Now I listen to Williams – and other heartrending artists – because it’s good music. It says something about the human soul. Funny how someone else’s sadness can be so relaxing. It’s nice when you remember that you have no reason to cry, and even when you think you do, it’s probably not a very good one. Let someone else do the crying.
This, a song about asking forgiveness, feels a little mournful for today. But also thought provoking, if you want to dwell on thoughts about grace. Penitence, grace, and forgiveness are pillars in the doctrines of every faith I know of. Perhaps guidance for navigating those things is the reason we have religion in the first place. The asking and dispensing of forgiveness may be, out of the emotional events we humans experience, the most spiritual. It is certainly the most difficult thing to ask forgiveness, or to give it, and that may be why we’ve tied it so much into doctrine and ceremony. You may take a dim view of organized religion, or question whether it even still has a place in the modern world, but if there’s one benefit to mankind that religion continues to provide it’s teaching people how to humble themselves emotionally. That’s why it may be impossible to make contrition and forgiveness your subject – in song, or in any other art – without invoking religious feeling. You can just be sorry to one person before you, but as an artist you have to be sorry before God as well.
One of my wishes for my younger self is that I had discovered Bjork sooner. I would have had more hope for the future if I had heard her in the 90’s. Alas, I grew up without MTV. As late as the mid-late 2000’s (when I finally started getting regular internet access) I had very little pop culture. I didn’t know that in 2001 one this was declared one of the most controversial and iconic music videos of all time. I think I would have been impressed to see the singer half nude having pearls sowed directly into her skin, and more with her naked face, and even more with her naked emotion.
Who knew navigating a department store could sound so cool? While also being a stalker, it sounds like. Ladytron pretty much owns it in the cool Euro-electronica department. And having formed all the way back in 1999, they’re also basically elder statespersons on the scene at this point. Although electronic pop bands have proliferated since 2001, not many have this much suavity and wit. This is like the sexiest, coolest elevator ride ever; that doesn’t sound like something to aspire to, but it’s a compliment. Ladytron are “the best of English pop music” – I didn’t say that, Brian Eno did.
Lucinda Williams nails a lot of things about romance, mostly the bad ones. Mostly heartaches; that could be her motto. She really comes at it from every side. What she’s coming at here is, as usual, loss and its afterburn. It’s one of the most painful things about ended romance, a regret that often hangs on for years after desire has died down; it’s the loss of friendship. Long after the love has died, you mourn the companionship, all of the shared things of two lives together, the friends in common and favorite spots and in-jokes and habits. Because when you move on from a longtime love, you’re also reshaping your day to day life. You have to change your routines, your places to go, the people in your circle, the objects in your home. That’s if you’re lucky and you get out with relative ease. You may have to say goodbye to your home, your car, your pets, custody of your children, the face you were born with, your savings, your reputation. Few things descend into destruction and trauma as dramatically and irreversibly fast as the separation of two lives. But even in the most basic and painless breakup, you’re still losing a huge chunk of your life, and you may still mourn the details of that life, and even if you’re past mourning the romance, you may still wish that you’d been friends instead of lovers.
This is a master lesson in dramatic timing. Nobody tells a dramatic narrative like Nick Cave does. He starts with a whisper and builds, over more than seven minutes, to a devastating climax. He’s telling a very modern story about scandal, persecution and paranoia, but with clear roots in literary tradition that goes back centuries. Cave is one of our most literate rock star laureates, known to pay homage to Homer and the ancient Greeks. Nick Cave puts rock music at the exact intersection of theatre, poetry and folk tradition, and that makes him among the most thought provoking artists working today, most certainly one who has transcended the limitations of genre. The fall from grace is a narrative arc as old as literature and eternally popular, and Cave has always found it fascinating. He updates it here with telephones and paparazzi; the implication is that the public humiliation that modern media has made possible is its own inferno, a brand new circle of hell reserved for those who’ve sinned in the public eye. We’ve certainly seen it play out, this public flogging, and it is very much a horror show. We’ve seen people literally die from too much public opinion. We can’t have executions in the town square anymore or put adulterers in stocks, but we can watch our fallen stars get broken down psychologically until they’re pathetic husks of themselves, or dead. It’s a blood sport for a new generation, and it’s going to grow its own body of literature to explain, rationalize, ennoble, memorialize, and decry. This phenomenon of gawking at the famous when they’re at their lowest – think of Britney Spears with her shaved head and umbrella, Amy Winehouse running through Camden weeping and bloody, Michael Jackson at pretty much any point in his final 20 or so years on earth… Put this phenomenon in historical context, put it in literary context. It’s the eternal entertainment value of human tragedy, it’s our thirst for violence, it’s the mighty getting their comeuppance for being who they are. It’s culture.