By Conrad Amenta | 24 August 2007
“Alternative” is one hell of a sticky modifier. Alternative Rock groaned under the weight of its own contradictions, never bothering to explain how the Smashing Pumpkins and Alice in Chains belonged in the same genus, serving only to distinguish between mainstream and an emerging market trend, to explain modern rock radio with the Nirvana-shaped dent in it. And very soon Alternative wasn’t even doing that. Today, Alternative supergroups write the themes to Bond movies, talk shit about DJing, are CGI imposed on the wings of harrier jets that scream over the Superbowl to spell out the name of Che Guevara’s new cola in missile smoke as Bruce Willis plays blues harmonica from the cockpit.
So, what is there to do with Alternative Country other than hope that there’s something a little bit more interesting going on? I thought Alternative Country was little more than an opportunity for rock musicians to put an asterisk next to a departure from their career arc (Jenny Lewis), or to romanticize tropes best understood by their fan base as cultural artifacts and thus privilege it as somehow more authentic (the Sadies). And there’s nothing wrong with that: some do it excellently, with a well-read understanding of country music history, while conveniently leaving out the underbelly of racial segregation and class discrimination that informed the genre during its conception. If mainstream country is essentially pop music’s ugly older brother, a genre that lacks a commercial conscience (or taste enough to distinguish when schmaltz and sheen become too much), then Alternative Country was a nearby tourist destination, a chance for most of us who couldn’t be bothered to delve much deeper than Johnny Cash’s cover of a Nine Inch Nails song to diversify our record collections. And for a little while country music, Alternative or otherwise, seemed to have found respite from what had been almost a century long search for personal salvation.
But today mainstream country is a soul-sucking black force that cancels out life, a foreboding dead obelisk in the sky the shape of a stock car, and it’s found something else to save. Long since having auctioned its own soul, mainstream country turns its insidiously inbred eye to patriotic matters, to traditional marriage, just the right to believe in something without being exactly sure of what; Alternative Country has an honest-to-god chance to be an alternative to something again. And so the subject of Deer Tick singer John McCauley’s personal salvation might just be a lament for country music’s lost soul, too.
McCauley’s haunted moan picks itself up off the ground, turns briefly into a howl before collapsing once again — Jeff Mangum bleached of psyche pop and tied tightly, painfully with rough twang. Immaculate vocal melodies, also like Neutral Milk Hotel, are given so much more personality for the unconventional rasp of McCauley’s voice; to believe that the soul of a man is on stage, that its salvation is the question, is possible for the tremulous tenor less Conor Oberst than Tom Waits. Over the course of War Elephant‘s forty-five tortured minutes the listener tries to guess the outcome, the circumstances that lead to McCauley’s daily habitation of a place where death isn’t just an inevitability, but one where the “bullet hole will steal your soul.”
The path to true tragedy, which McCauley navigates like a road-weary transient, is the dependence of suffering upon the protagonist’s ineffable belief in romance. At War Elephant’s cynical core is an unquestioning belief in the heart’s tyranny over the mind. “They said it was the cheapest fare at this time of year / and they said it’s nice and safe and you’ve got nothing to fear / so I will take this old plane to get to you.” Of course, inevitably, “twenty minutes later, the plane crashes down / and I’m one of three left among a priest and a clown.” Cliched, perhaps, but McCauley is trapped in a story of his own choosing, a well-established absurdist groundwork. Suspending one’s disbelief for the misfortune in “Art Isn’t Real (City of Sin)” is made possible by the presence of “Spend the Night,” appropriately followed by the sweet “Diamond Rings 2007.” I may not subscribe to the world order in which one inevitably follows the other, but it’s far easier to go there, however temporarily, when the story is so convincingly told.
War Elephant may be a coda of beliefs to which McCauley is knowingly and terribly resigned, a wanderer’s self-portrait in a universal order that simultaneously makes tragic and romantic the justification of suffering. Surely it’s no mistake his various uses of Christ imagery. Salvation is an acceptance of the unfairness of a too difficult life; while Christ is supposed to come back, for the rest of us it’s “When you’re dead you’re dead / when you’re gone, you’re gone.” And while you’re at it, “Kiss all the saviors goodbye / offer them up to the dead.” If life is suffering, and there are no guarantees for the afterlife, either, McCauley forces into his recourse the crux of country music’s paradoxical, heartbreaking non-choice: “I believe there’s a way to shut the things you don’t need out / and I believe that agony is a sound.” Bury it or suffer horrible catharsis, but the pain isn’t going anywhere.
Musically, War Elephant is a fascinating pastiche of honky-tonk, pseudo-folk, and one incredibly puzzling musical closer (“What Kind of Fool Am I?”) that at least proves McCauley’s sandpaper voice can hit a high note, but might instead be meant to turn absurd the listener’s expectation that with the album’s close will finally come salvation. When McCauley asks “what kind of a fool am I?” to think he would find love, what he’s really asking is “what kind of a fool are you“ to expect the same? Leading up to the song’s strange switch in tone, song arrangements purposefully preempt each song’s development, such as the stillborn drums that finally come in during “Ashamed” only for the song to suddenly end, or the cathartic wail of “Christ Jesus” that peaks and is then promptly abandoned. It’s not only an absorbing bit of songwriting, the same way Andrew Bird insisted that his “Fake Palindromes” burst into melodious perfection only to never repeat, but also keeps the album’s rough emotional edges from being grating or embarrassing.
It’s hard to know how to position oneself relative to a genre that can seem so stubbornly anachronistic, something that pledges allegiance to stunted notions of unchangeable injustices, unfixable problems, and missing saviors. I’m writing this from the safe, clean confines of my desk job; what do I know about dystopian roads that lead nowhere, about bittersweet hope in a world of hopelessness? But as an alternative to calculated angst, to gloss and sheen best appreciated by pop cultural consumerists (and no, I don’t think War Elephant escapes the paradigm. It’s just nice to lose oneself in a good story), Deer Tick is exactly what the name suggests: a needling, ever present pain in the side of the too perfect majesty of some too beautiful creature, a “testament to how we are so animalistic.”