Last Days

These Places Are Now Ruins

(N5md; 2007)

By Conrad Amenta | 3 February 2008

Film critic Walter Chaw compellingly argues that American film in 2007 is mirroring an arc once taken by American film in the mid-seventies. The idealism of the sixties was exposed as having floated to the top of the same patriarchal well from which sprung post-9/11's triumphal consumerism and orgiastic military exposition (no coincidence that both were enjoyed by the same generation aged thirty years or so), and then faded into an inevitably jaded cynicism, a near-nihilistic coming-to-terms with the notion that the principles that make America an impressive mythology are also precisely what make it mythological. In the seventies films like Serpico saw men of moral codes, upon whose heavy shoulders rested a prescriptive world order of law and honor, left out in the cold of a new world predicated on a universal of corruption, chaos and violence. No Country for Old Men, Eastern Promises, American Gangster, Gone Baby Gone, Darjeeling Limited -- 2007 ushers in the second coming of the era of the post-, be it post-morality, post-law, post-spirituality, or the post-apocalyptic, to the American mainstream. The end of the American Century is not nigh; it was almost a decade ago, a reality to which we are only now awakening. Even when we discuss global warming, it's with a newfound fatalism that suggests it's too late to do anything about it. We are living in the times of retrospection, the playground of the nostalgic, and our soundtracks, like our cinema, are becoming eulogies.

Film may provide a more overt correlation between thematics and politics, but music touches the zeitgeist in just as interesting if less articulate ways. Serpico's musical relatives were 1977's Rocket to Russia and Never Mind the Bollocks Here's the Sex Pistols, which (though the latter was not American) are pseudo- nihilistic manifestos refracting first the malaise of suburbia and then the alienation of the British dole, of Vietnam and Cold War exhaustion. From these sprang energy and anger, but 2007 differs. The same recognition that cowboy idealism, the unwritten code and frontier justice of The Decider, are a bankrupt ideology spread too thin by the complexity of today's geopolitical realities, is shifted from the desire to see it burn to resignation that it already has and hope, in spite of everything, for the survival of beauty in the days to come, when we'll be looking up at the top rung from somewhere below. One can't help but think that American anger is all but spent in Fallujah, Mosul, and Baghdad, after all.

So instead, 2007 offers the silent and the gentle: a calm portrait of destitution, of ash on wind. With nothing left to say, and no genres left with which to say it, what is there but to reconstitute and pastiche (Victor Bermon, Spoon), spout mad words and gibberish (Frog Eyes), play the prophet (Deer Tick), obscure one's voice (Panda Bear, A Sunny Day in Glasgow, Battles) or revel in the absence of words (Hauschka, Pantha Du Prince, Baja, e-Jugend, and now Last Days)? To assemble from pieces, and lament auspices and cracked monoliths with over-emotional epics of noise and static are naturalistic in a world where narrative, and its absurdity, is the final shelter of the besieged.

To that end (no pun intended), Last Days distills 2007's grief and These Places Are Now Ruins eulogizes the Church of Belief for which principles were self-legitimizing. The album captures the undercurrent of fractured aristocracy, where the fundamentalism of privilege has not just been unsettled, but unseated right under our noses. If nostalgia is the playground of the defeated, then lamentation is the purview of the orator. And the orator is himself eulogized by absence and ambience -- spectral traces of what were once vivid declarations from the decks of aircraft carriers. These Places Are Now Ruins is gloomy, is beautiful, manages to grasp or tap into a pervasive sadness without the lefty hyperbole of a Godspeed You! Black Emperor or Explosions in the Sky, and without a dependency on a visionary or academic character so often associated with a Christian Fennesz or Keith Fullerton Whitman album which, despite the extremely anti-personal music they craft, can suggest elitism and hero worship.

Titles are here wasted on each of the album's thirteen tracks, and useless except to contribute, however minimally, to the music's subterranean aesthetic or to momentarily evoke the wretchedness with which we watch CNN. What relatively recent event immediately comes to mind when you think "Saved by a Helicopter"? The appropriateness of the imagery of "Swimming Pools at Night" is hardly there for debate, but in comparison to the resonant depths of the music to which it's attached, the title pales. Each song creeps towards the suggestion of crescendo, like a desert mound, knowingly sustaining its build without destination and replacing payoff with a leveling off. The mixture of ambient and traditional instrumentation incarcerates the anxiety and defeatism of 2007's mediocre close. Really, that it finds occasion to be this beautiful at all is a remarkable feat.

Though there have been many more rewarding and enjoyable listens, I can't think of a more suitable album with which to complete a year of reviewing. Each of these songs might operate as a soundtrack counterpart to a cinematic rendered in the shadows of hollowed-out buildings, or to slow-motion moments reliving how and when it all started to go so wrong. That albums like this can be political without being verbal is ultimately what allows them to avoid being alienating. These Places Are Now Ruins transcends left-right association and evokes mood; that it's the undeniable divisiveness, loneliness, and fear of our time is brave. It's not a pool into which we often find ourselves wanting to look.