Apologies to the Queen Mary
(Sub Pop; 2005)
By Christopher Alexander | 3 November 2005
A friend and I were recently arguing whether or not The Arcade Fire were destined to be the M. Night Shyamalan of the o’naughts. We had quite a bit of wine—well, anyway, I did—and I challenged my interlocuter’s conventional taste. “Remember when everyone fell over themselves over The Sixth Sense? I was wobbling the table, unable to hear my neighbors’ uproarious laughter over “The Thick Thenth.” “I hated that movie then, and everyone treated me like a fucking pariah! And now everyone sees him for the unoriginal trickster he is! History has vindicated me over M, and it will vindicate me over the Arcade Fire!” I pounded the table with my fist, and I would’ve poured more wine if I could find the bottle.
My friend clasped a hand on my shoulder and said, not unkindly, “Look, dude: you’re the only person I really see who even knows who The Arcade Fire are.”
And I, for my part, don’t see anyone who even knows who the Wolf Parade are, let alone likes them. The only people who do are my telecommuting colleagues here at the glow, whom, as Aaron has pointed out, are not real people. Nevertheless, when I gave my low rating for Apologies to the Queen Mary, I caught the deluge, and found myself on the defensive for a negative opinion on a record I didn’t feel merited much analysis in the first place. So fast forward to right now, a few weeks later, spending three consecutive hours trying to either find what it is that made everyone fall in love with the record or, failing that, what made me initially shrug my shoulders.
I think it’s fair: It is imperative when making an argument that you return to the text, and anyone who fails to back up their criticism without evidence deserves all the hate mail s/he receives, this writer (especially) included. And I’m mindful of Vonnegut’s maxim of the vengeful critic: “Anyone expressing contempt and loathing for a novel is preposterous. He or she is like a person who has dressed in full armor to attack a hot fudge sundae.” All the same, I find myself in an untenable position: either I capitulate and rescind a rating for a record whose value has been inflated like Brooklyn real estate, or I take time of my life for the sole purpose of knocking it down.
Many of Wolf Parade’s acolytes insist on judging this record with an emotional eye rather than an analytical one. Cue Brandon Stosuy of Pitchfork: “Groups like Neutral Milk Hotel and The Arcade Fire inspire listeners to feel [emphasis theirs] their music and listen to what’s being said.” One Amir Nazer wrote a very long and intelligently argued article dismissing the very idea. At the time I quite disagreed with it, being the hardcore relativist that I am, but now I begin to see his essential point: I ask you to take ten minutes from your life because, I hope, my opinion carries with it a kind of education and skill that allows me to make a unique insight that might better enhance your understanding of the work, and, maybe, persuade you to think differently than you might already. I’m in no way qualified to discuss the British War of the Roses, but years studying writing and English can help me explain how ridiculously clever the opening soliloquy of Richard III is.
However, the strength of Shakespeare’s writing imbues in it a kind of viscera that is better left unexplained, since everyone has their own set of emotions and reacts differently to controlled stimuli. And Shakespeare, as the saying goes, did not mean for his plays to be discussed; they were meant to be performed, to come alive in the theater for the audience to react.
So, okay: back to Stosuy’s feelings. Well, what is it that made In the Aeroplane Over the Sea so visceral? Jeff Mangum, like the Arcade Fire and Wolf Parade, takes many of his cues from past masters, perhaps too many, but he was also willing to take risks and bask in his own idiosyncrasy—eight minutes of spare, unwavering melancholy during “Oh, Comely,” mellotron mariachi horns on “Holland 1945,” the lysergic imagery of the whole thing. Where the emotional resonance comes from is in the melodies that were too big for words—the end of “Oh Comely,” “King of Carrot Flowers Pts. 1 and 2,” the album’s title track – anchored by simple, often rudimentary chord changes underneath.
Wolf Parade and The Arcade Fire clearly were paying attention to that aspect of it, because those kinds of melodies crop up often in both of their lauded debut records. The latter announces this immediately on Funeral with “Neighborhood #1 (Tunnels),” beginning with a pretty melody played on guitar and piano. It resembles a childlike take the riff that opens Radiohead’s “Airbag,” and fittingly replaces that song’s fear of death by car crash with death of parents. The album’s appeal baffles me, but even I can’t deny them the majesty of this song, especially when they almost do it themselves with a completely ill-fitting faux disco beat.
That off-beat high-hat lasts all of a minute, but it says more about the record than its admirable lyrical content does. Specifically: the gene-pool in which they tread is shallow water. The band’s salient influences are Neutral Milk Hotel, Interpol, Modest Mouse, The Pixies, and Radiohead. The Talking Heads crops up often, and Win Butler yelps like David Byrne, but Byrne’s lyrics are far more cerebral and esoteric than Butler’s evocative but protean childhood imagery, to say nothing of that band’s fusion of nervy art punk with Eno-esque electronics and world-funk. For all of their big melodies and sleeve-worn hearts, The Arcade Fire have thus far taken absolutely none of those bands’ sense of adventure or attention to craft, recalling instead only their mania and the superficialities of their sounds and voices.
The same can be said of Wolf Parade (finally, nine graphs in), who place David Bowie’s multifaceted visage where David Byrne would go in AF’s DNA. To their credit, they pay stricter adherence to the compositional economy and big melody theory, and also go for the throat more consistently and, at times, better than their regional cousins. The drum pattern that kicks off Apologies to the Queen Mary is mountainous, using rests and empty space to claim more land than The Louisiana Purchase. A distorted keyboard matches it beat for beat, employing a simple i-V7 progression over Spencer Krug’s pitch perfect lyrics of estrangement and genetic inevitability in “You Are a Runner and I Am My Father’s Son.” (For greater depth please see Aaron’s reviews; whatever our differences may be, I cede that the lyrics are uncommonly excellent.)
Given that the record explodes from the starting line, that such a high mark is hit so early, its considerable meandering portions are especially frustrating. “Modern World” is counterintuitive and ponderous, highlighting an acoustic guitar figure that openly apes _Lonesome Crowded West_-era Modest Mouse. “Fancy Claps” finds the band awkwardly trying the quirk out, coming across as a more sober Hot Hot Heat, and only slightly better for their effort. The long, portentous “Same Ghost Every Night” is awkward and kind of silly; here, the big melody is a run of ascending quarter notes on the keyboard, rudimentary to the point of being elementary, as if Al Kooper had been asked to shoulder the entire weight of “Like a Rolling Stone” as opposed to letting air out of its zeppelin.
A point of order: half of this album is comprised of newly recorded versions of songs already released. One might well ask why this record was ever made in the first place. These songs certainly haven’t developed from their earlier forbearers: “Dinner Bells” had a lean march at its backbone on the Four Songs EP, but seemed to stop mid-song into a lazy descent, as if it suddenly found itself suspended in air; it seemed unfinished, ripe for revisiting. The band blows its chance: the album version slows down the tempo so it plods and drags, still unable to resolve its third act problems. “Dear Sons and Daughters of Hungry Ghosts” initial incarnation opened with clapping hands and la la la’s giving way to cascading keyboards. Here, the keys inaugurate the track by rote, sounding as if it’s long ago lost whatever it was that propelled it.
Through interviews and the grapevine, one gets the distinct impression that not all of this is the band’s fault. Isaac Brock is justly celebrated as the point man behind one of the genre’s most formidable back catalogues, but he has no business being on the other side of the mixing board. The record sounds implosive and over-compressed, as if the songs had been left in a refrigerator overnight. Worse, he gets self-conscious and labored performances from his musicians. “We Built another World” deserves to be an album highlight, with guitars and drums leading the way in the mix. It collapses because it rests on the thin skeleton of the keyboards and double tracked vocals.
Wolf Parade have been (unimaginatively, though with no small justification) lumped in with the other “it” bands of the last twelve months, like The Arcade Fire, Clap Your Hands Say Yeah, and Frog Eyes. The bands share common traits besides incessant acclaim: a sound that melds together the most popular indie-rock acts of the last five years, of course; but principally, lyrics which are vulnerable and evocative, and meant to be shared with many people, who will in turn identify with them in a communal act of catharsis. It’s not hard to see why they’re given Springsteen and Cobain levels of hype: they’re the saviors of rock because they believe rock is salvation. Topics like familial death and the struggle to be lucky in love go directly to the heart of many people, and bands that can write about these things with passion, intelligence and grace are understandably given a wide berth.
What’s surprising, then, is not that these records are overhyped, but that no one has bothered to make a very obvious comparison. A little less than ten years ago, bands like Sunny Day Real Estate, The Promise Ring, Texas is the Reason and others were making accessible and emotionally charged rock music, characterized by powerful live shows, incestuous camaraderie, and uneven long-players. Some were more abrasive, some were more poppy, but all of these bands basically sounded like Fugazi, Dinosaur Jr, and My Bloody Valentine thrown into a blender. This is an imperfect analogy: none of the emocore bands I’ve listed were ever as popular as The Arcade Fire is now, and in the days before file trading, a single pressed on 500 records would probably only be heard by about five hundred people.
This stands to make some people uncomfortable; the hallmarks of emo are navel-gazing and self-pity, “emotional” only to that grouping of people who believe they are the sole victims of life’s tragedy, a script written only for them. Their fans ask no serious challenges of them, and as a result we can see the offspring of too much inbreeding now making rounds on MTV2 and your local shopping mall. Surely the nascent bumper crop of “it bands” are better than that?
Answer: yes, but not by as much as you think. The internet is as prone to critical rubber-stamping as print media, as obsessed with the vicissitudes and trends of youth as if we had spread ads by cologne companies. Those blogs and publications – Salon, Pitchforkmedia, and (I’d like to think) Cokemachineglow – are not upstarts but, in the age of epinons and soulseek, ipso facto the new kingmakers. More importantly, with new kingmakers come new kings, new histories to write and myths to perpetuate, and flaws to gloss over. This is how, systematically, subcultures reward those who stick to formula while congratulating themselves for being “forward thinking,” which really means “listening to music most people haven’t heard of.” “Meet the new boss,” as the song goes, “same as the old boss.”
This, I think, explains the lavish reception these bands have received, more so than mere trend hopping or a journalistic rush to “break” them first. The Pixies, Modest Mouse, and Neutral Milk Hotel now occupy the same spaces where The Beatles, The Rolling Stones and The Who were for as long as anyone can remember. It’s thrilling, an easy way to play spot the influence, but it’s more than that: it’s vindicating, what it must’ve felt in 1991 when Nevermind sold more records than anyone can count, even if Funeral has sold a mere fraction of that: “We won!”
And after all that, a confession: spending three weeks on various drafts of this article, my opinion of Apologies to the Queen Mary has improved by exactly five points. Despite its inflated stock price, what there is to like I like quite a bit: the circuitous melody of the absolutely heartbreaking “I’ll Believe in Anything,” the expert attention to dynamics at the end of “Grounds for Divorce,” that delicious turn of phrase about God’s “best God damned plans” in “Dear Sons and Daughters of Hungry Ghosts.”
I wrote a review for Funeral for a different publication in which I express a strange kind of pity for The Arcade Fire. To me, Funeral reminded me of Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, a promising but very seriously flawed debut immediately hailed as a masterpiece. Mockingbird was extremely successful, but Lee never wrote again. It was not a fate I wanted to see the Arcade Fire repeat (whatever I may have vinously said), nor Wolf Parade. I’m rooting for both of these bands, and I think they deserve better. They deserve our scrutiny and our criticism, they deserve to learn from their mistakes, they deserve to become better bands. I want them to succeed.
Except M. Night Shyamalan. Fuck that guy.