Godspeed You! Black Emperor

Allelujah! Don't Bend! Ascend!

(Constellation; 2012)

By Conrad Amenta | 23 November 2012

Godspeed You! Black Emperor, stalwarts of indie post-rock and millennial dread from the cultural epicenter of Francophone Canada, are back after a ten-year hiatus. More exciting than their new album, which appeared with as much notice as ceremony, is the chance for us slightly older critics to write about politics in the same ambiguous, non-committal way we used to back when we listened to Lift Your Skinny Fists Like Antennas to Heaven (2000). Does it mean anything that Soundgarden, a pioneer of grunge’s meaningless anger, would release their meaninglessly angry King Animal this same month? Probably not, but the coincidence is useful all the same. Any review of a reunited Godspeed has to ask if the former reunion is truly more meaningful than the latter, or if the two bands are lockstep in their anachronism. After listening to this new Godspeed record, and revisiting their entire discography, I’m left with two nagging questions. First: after all we’ve been through these past ten years, doesn’t protest music need some new ideas? And second: where the fuck have you been?

‘Allelujah! Don’t Bend! Ascend! is stately, as usual—beautiful the way Mogwai’s brand of instrumental, post-rock music is still beautiful. You’ll enjoy the band’s familiar, cyclical build through dynamics, the way the bass still underpins the guitars’ swirling noise with strategic shifts in key, and the occasional samples thread like apparitions throughout. There are a few new if subtle additions to the formula, including vaguely Middle Eastern guitar melodies. It hardly matters; when we write about Godspeed today we’re not writing about how they sound. That’s because we know from listening to Animal Hospital, Explosions in the Sky, and Mogwai, that their music is replicable, even commonplace. No, when we write about Godspeed, we’re really writing about our hope that ‘political’ music still has the ability to agitate for some kind of positive change. Read any review of this record out there. Almost all of them revisit the notion that political music—for which Godspeed acts as a stand-in—has held on to its utility. Some even go so far as to suggest that there’s an urgency that makes Godspeed’s return serendipitous. I can only chalk this up to so much wishful thinking.

Godspeed’s politics have always been ambiguous, cynical, and most of all paranoid. That’s not meant to be dismissive; paranoia is a key characteristic of the band’s identity. Godspeed’s emergence in the late nineties coincided with the heyday of Clintonian liberal democracy, a time when we were told that the propagation of wealth, even in a concentrated rather than redistributed form, would benefit overall progressivism and freedom. Radiohead’s great paranoid masterpiece, OK Computer (1997), came out the same year as Godspeed’s debut. We know now that this period of seemingly unlimited prosperity was also one in which a massive housing bubble was being artificially inflated, checks-and-balances were removed from commodity speculation, driving the prices of food and energy up, climate change was accelerated past the point of no return, and the now infamous bundling of toxic assets was made possible. The paranoid fantasy—that we were being lied to and exploited for the benefit of the few—were about to move from the margins into popular discourse. At the time, Godspeed depicted a world in which the homeless and the mad—the truly marginalized—were our only conduits to subterranean truths, and their music was effective because it contrasted the veneer of civility that whitewashed our dialogue about politics and marginalization. The feeling of paranoia is the feeling that everything is broken, but more importantly, it’s the feeling that everything’s brokenness is strategically hidden from us.

Ten years later, it’s apparent that Godspeed—or at least whoever speaks for them—feels the same way. Look at this sprawling Guardian interview, in which whoever is writing for the band says as much: “Whatever politics we had were born out of always being broke and living through a time when the dominant narrative was that everything was fine and always would be fine, for ever [sic]. Clearly this was a lie. But Clinton was president, the Berlin Wall was down, our economies were booming, and the internet was a shiny new thing that was going to liberate us all. The gatekeepers gazed upon their kingdom and declared that it was good. Meanwhile, so many of us were locked out, staring at all that gold from the outside in.”

This perspective is an anachronism, if only because the Bush Jr. years—years during which Godspeed’s various members were putting out solo albums or running their own label and venue –killed paranoia dead. You didn’t have to be a clever satirist or living on the margins of society to suspect that something was deeply wrong with the world. America went through, and is still experiencing, a period of deeply divisive partisan politics. At any given time, 50% of the country thinks that the world is about to end. Through terrorism, war, and economic crisis, that brokenness that paranoid bands once felt they had to uncover has become evident.

Where Godspeed’s early work feels like an urgent transmission from the ignored underbelly of a desperate culture, today the band’s political touchstones have been subsumed into popular culture. Whether it’s Cormac McCarthy winning the Pulitzer for The Road, Daniel Day Lewis winning an Oscar for There Will Be Blood and Javier Bardem for No Country for Old Men, The Wire being called the best show in television history, Drake and Kanye’s guilty excess selling tens of millions, or Christopher Nolan’s Batman movies sitting like juggernauts over the industry, Americans have found their taste for trauma, their lack of faith in public institutions, and their post-Millennial anxiety. These themes are writ as large on the mainstream as they were in Japan after The Bomb, when post-apocalyptic anime became a cultural force. As a result, today it sounds as if the zeitgeist has passed Godspeed by. Where the West’s cultural output reflected a dark journey post-9/11/post-Iraq—every one of its archetypal characters, from Superman to Bruce Springsteen to James Bond subject to complex parental issues and nihilistic violence—Godspeed largely went silent. They come back to a world where torture is explored at the shopping mall movie theater.

Simply put, the role of the artist as the seer, the teller of hidden truths—the paranoid—has become less useful. And so where Godspeed’s return affords protest music an opportunity to renew itself, to clearly explain in the media what the band believes and to use this amazing music as a vehicle for that ideology, it is instead a fond memory of a simpler time when our horrors were hidden. I’m reading a book right now about how artists in post-WW2 France struggled with if or how to align with various leftist movements such as Communism. In 2012, our protest struggles with whether or not it should simply pick an issue.

Instead, Godspeed almost seem pissed at musicians, of all people. From that same Guardian article: “[…] now a whole lot of bands react to the current heaviness by privileging the party times, like some weird Scientology will-to-power bullshit, hit that hi-hat with a square’s fist until we all make it to heaven, until Sunday morning’s bringdown [sic]. Self-conscious good vibes like love-handles poking through some 22-year-old’s American Apparel T-shirt at some joint where you can only dance once you pay a $10 cover charge just to listen to some internet king’s iPod.”

It’s a bit petty to pick on chubby kids in fashionable t-shirts, not because they don’t deserve to be picked on but because it just doesn’t matter. Godspeed, as the figurehead of a musical revolution, here sound like indie music’s fuddy-duddy-ish grandpa who complains about how you don’t make real music with computers. (My dad still says there hasn’t been a real rock band since Santana.)

What Godspeed don’t seem to understand or care about is that while the Sunday morning bring-down crew—let’s assume we’re talking about Drake here—is presenting a sort of nihilistic/fatalistic view of the world that only encourages further thoughtlessness and selfishness, Godspeed present the embattled listener with the same amount of hope, options, or answers. The listener is left to debate gradations of political-ness between artists who, while vastly different aesthetically, present the same kind of blankness of ideology. I understand that Godspeed is leftish, and that’s about it.

One is left with the nagging suspicion that if Godspeed were to ever explain their music—and they come as close to doing so in that Guardian article as I’ve ever seen—that you’d be disappointed with their explanation. That shouldn’t be a surprise; Godspeed derive their power from their mystery, from their unwillingness to participate in what they perceive to be the soulless PR game of selling one’s music. Forget that the hustle has been a transformative vehicle for social change forever, stepping out of the dialogue is unsatisfying at a time when there are essential questions in front of us and we need leaders to take sides.

Instead, Godspeed’s protest is one of negation—noise, tension, escalation. The only Godspeed record that attempts to be specific—2002’s Yanqui U.X.O., which attempted to demonstrate the relationship between major labels and arms manufacturers via a sketch on its back cover —was largely dismissed as inaccurate, and a distraction from the album’s grandiose and elegant music. And so Godspeed find themselves at an irresolvable crossroads: all bands, especially those on a reunion tour, are expected to participate in a discussion about what used to make their band interesting or important. For a band typecast as political like Godspeed, that means accounting for one’s beliefs. But what if Godspeed’s political thinking is not as interesting or important as their music? What if, after all these years, they don’t leave us with any beliefs beyond what we already know, which is that the world is deeply broken?

The point being, if you’re looking for political restlessness in music, or even some confirmation that indie still has a political subtext, Arcade Fire do it better. (More convincing, perhaps, to argue that indie has lost its entitlement altogether, and that if there’s anything Godspeed do that is counter-culturally relevant it’s running their own label, studio, and venue in Montreal.) From the same town but sharing stages with stadium giants like Byrne and Bowie and Springsteen, Arcade Fire’s three-album, existential descent towards adulthood provides a graceful elegy for one’s childhood that Godspeed’s bleak, impersonal landscape can’t be bothered with. If this album affords us the opportunity to inspect Godspeed in the context of their supposed political acuity, then they’re not even the most perceptive or urgent band from their own town. At least with Arcade Fire I know what Haiti means to them, and their fame—their willingness to play the PR hustle—has helped them to raise significant funds for disaster relief in that country. With Godspeed I hear about a “sky full of drones,” and “fruit rotting on the vine,” and “the police state” and “corruption,” all of which, again, you can read about the New York Times. I saw Godspeed member Efrim Menuck’s other band, A Silver Mt. Zion, play a show in which he took questions from the audience and didn’t really bother to answer a single one of them. At the time I thought it silly, but what Allelujah! Don’t Bend! Ascend! implies is that perhaps that is the sum total of his willingness or ability to discuss matters of importance with authority and conviction.

So, yes, I’m calling Godspeed out: I missed you guys, and I love your music, but the mere implication of political-ness isn’t enough anymore. You’re a leader in indie music, and being a little bit more transparent about your beliefs and why we should care about them is an important part of influencing one’s listeners.

We need to make note here of Godspeed’s Canadian roots, and what that means in the context of what’s been changing here in my country. While the band as absent from the scene, Canada too went about a sea change. About twenty years of federal rule by the center-left Liberal party, whose policies seem in hindsight to have been designed to piss off as few people as possible, ended ignominiously with scandals and apathy. This ushered in eight years of Conservative party politics, including a majority government. (For our American friends, a majority government is the equivalent of one party controlling the White House and Congress simultaneously. Our Senate doesn’t interfere with many bills, but for what it’s worth, the Senate is Conservative, too.) Canada is now experiencing a dyed-in-the-wool, law-and-order, defense-spending, social-contract shredding, anti-tax Conservative agenda, one with which I don’t necessarily agree but which I don’t deny seems to resonate with a majority of Canadians. Where Canadian politics tend to avoid the kind of volume and polemics that America’s year-long federal campaigns involve, at home Godspeed may find currency in the kind of paranoia in which they excel. However, it’s not paranoia we need: it’s voices on the left articulating more than anger. Canada has a new subterranean truth, and that truth is that the majority of Canadians are conservative thinkers. I can think of no better time for one of Canada’s most respected protest bands, living in one of Canada’s most progressive cities, to talk about health care, taxation, First Nations and Aboriginal rights, women’s rights, fucking anything but how “The gatekeepers gazed upon their kingdom and declared that it was good.” Which: yeah. And?

The closest we get to specificity here is a sample of the protests that took place in Montreal this past summer, which involved thousands from across demographics, and which seemed, like the Occupy Movement, to encapsulate a broad-based dissatisfaction with representational politics. There’s something more urgent, less forced, really, in listening to this music than an angsty post-rock album about nothing in particular. Shortly after the protests the provincial party was thrown out in an election, and a populist (separatist) provincial party was elected in Quebec. A genuine groundswell in political sentiment resulted in corporeal change. Godspeed barely sound ancillary to this pragmatic, cogent, inspiring movement. They should be soundtracking it.

I can’t help but feel that critics and musicians alike find themselves in an echo chamber where the music about which we collectively obsesses is ultimately ineffectual and without utility, bouncing off of the surface of the zeitgeist. We’re cycling assessments of aesthetics and style, tsk-tsking the state of affairs with one part self-congratulation and one part masochism. To look back at the last decade I think the most counter-cultural, truly transformative act in music had little or nothing to do with content, but with the act of consumption. We, together and for myriad reasons, simply stopped paying for music and almost overnight the industry changed. Whether for good or bad we don’t yet know, but the established order of producers and consumers was turned on its head. This isn’t to imply any of it was done with intention or purpose, or for any other reason than ‘free is better than not free.’ But I find greater potential in that shift than I do in this throwback of an album. We’ve moved out of the shadows of paranoia. Godspeed You! Black Emperor offer a majestic, beautiful coda for a version of protest that is dated and unhelpful today. I missed having their music around, but I wonder whose eyes they’re opening with a record that sounds like a document of yesterday’s anger.