Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Song of the Day #241 - Joanna Newsom - Kingfisher

I had a dream you came to me

Alright so two days ago, on a miraculously-warm-for-December-but-still-cold-and-miserable Monday, the day of the week so detested that even Garfield, who is - beyond a NEET - a cat complains about it, something so amazing happened that all these other facts were instantly BTFOed: Joanna Newsom played a show in Toronto. And I had a ticket and I used it to gain entry and sat in imo perfect seats and my eyes and ears functioned throughout so obviously I will never be the same. The very same human being that sat in a studio and recorded herself singing these songs was alive in the same space as me and preformed many of them, and the fact that at last I could see it was all real and that there was no magic was the most magical thing of all.

To celebrate this, here's probably my favorite Joanna Newsom song. And also to immediately invalidate my Top 25 Songs thing, lol. I was hanging out with my friends before the show and I tried to get everyone to commit to exactly one of her songs being your favorite, so that then, if she played it, you could say for absolutely sure that this was the peak (of your whole life, maybe) and really own that moment, and if she didn't play it, it wasn't like you could possibly disappointed anyways (if all of this sounds insufferably fanboyish, please know that it was maybe one of the most reasonable Newsom-related discussions of the night, far more reasonable than the Joanna Newsom trivia orz).

She did not play this song, but I, of course, was not disappointed. The setlist was fantastic, a wonderful balance of all four of her albums... unlike most concerts I go to, her catalog doesn't have many "obvious inclusions" insofar as she doesn't really produce radio singles or whatever, with most of her fans working from a whole album context, so she was totally free to sequence things entirely based on musicality. Her band was smaller than I would have guessed but it lent everything a really festive but intimate "jam"-type energy; they really seemed like they were having fun up there. It was honestly a very strange duality... the band moved precisely between instruments, referring to sheet music and dutifully keeping time, but the sound they produced was flexible and indulgent.

That was probably one of my favorite things about the concert, something I hadn't really anticipated... I had never realized how conversational so many of her lyrics are... like, you listen to an album a hundred or thousand times or whatever (genuinely unsure when the hyperbole starts) and you start to forget that what you're hearing isn't a set-in-stone, platonic ideal of the song, but simply the version they decided to go with. Every line actually exists in a highly mutable space, where everything from the length of spacing between words to the wording itself is subject to the whims of the moment. Hearing her make these little changes in the moment, accompanied by the flawless and familiar instrumentation... the best moment, probably, when she forgot a line during "Sawdust and Diamonds" and an audience member shouted it out... I really can't overstate the effect it had on me. Everything suddenly took on a whole new world of reality, every word carved out a range of possible movement around it, and the feelings and meanings behind every recording and performance came to life more than ever.

Beyond the joy of seeing deviance from the recorded tracks that have basically etched themselves onto my eardrums was the unexpected joy of absence: because she went from a full recorded orchestra to a live band of four, some instruments or flourishes were missing, and it was extremely powerful. This, again, I wasn't quite prepared for. I have, of course, seen artists live who preform songs faithfully to the original but with missing instrumentation, but I think typically the audience noise or other external factors distract you from it... everyone was basically stunned into silence here. Anyways, what ended up happening, is that I'd end up hearing the missing parts, very vividly, in my mind, without really trying to or even thinking about it, like, almost a full-on auditory hallucination. "Time, As A Symptom" is probably the best example... since there were (unfortunately) no live doves to coo on command at the right times, my brain, without being asked, stepped up and supplied them. The effect is twofold... first, the visceral feeling of your brain calling this up is powerful, and almost painful in its point-blank nostalgia, like when you've been hanging out with a good friend all day, and the sound of their voice echoes in your head for a few hours after they leave. And then, realizing that you've just had the same reaction from a "good friend" and "an album", and really feeling the similarity on a base serotonin level, and you think "man I really really do love music", and it's the best possible time to think this because holy shit look at where you are now.

I could go on way longer, and I might sometime in some "top concerts" list or something, but I bring up these two aspects specifically to lead us in to discussing "Kingfisher", which, given other things I've said, kinda makes sense that she might not want to play. This is not a fun song, this is not a jam, this is not something that good friends can sit around and happily share with a crowd. Not that she didn't play some emotionally charged songs, sure, but I feel like "Kingfisher" is on a tier beyond even that. Like if she could get through this song without breaking down into some sort of blubbering wreck I'd be surprised. I can barely get through it just listening to it.

We're deep into disc three of Have One On Me. It's the penultimate track. In the arch-narrative of the album, or at least my conception of it, the speaker has at last realized the abusiveness of her relationship, and is, after some lamentation and memorializing, preparing to leave. "Esme", "Autumn", and "Ribbon Bows", the three preceding tracks, are all slow burners, tracks that crawl along a single structural arch, leaving the viewer sort of... pleasantly adrift, I guess? But still tense, too... the resolution must be coming... and you see the 9:11 track length and you remember "Only Skin" and it starts to become almost frighteningly clear that this is gonna be the real one, that "Kingfisher" is Chapel Perilous itself, that the true climax of the album must lie here, and "Does Not Suffice" the resolution...

The theory is confirmed, I think, on the very first line, calling back to "Go Long" through mysterious melodic links, and all the way back to "Easy" lyrically, as Joanna finally confronts the question: who is it that is calling her name? To whom will she appear? From here, we move into a series of four-line blocks of questionings, alternating with short instrumental responses. It's an intricate, delicate, structure, not too unlike those of the immediately previous songs, although more dramatic and ominously swelling. The images are a mix of the apocolyptic and the halcyon - "beneath the drifting ashes" compared to "a pup in the constant barley"... she establishes the state of their current relations through reminiscing, making her accusations all the more powerful...

To me, being a modernist nerd, the lineup with these lyrics and the climax of T.S. Eliot's The Waste Land are so enthralling that I don't care about their accuracy. Both present a moment of looking around in awe at a world that promised so much beauty reduced to stillness and despair, and then saying, wait, isn't this your fault?, directly at the Fisher King himself. But it is an accusation mixed with sympathy at a mutual awareness of a problem much greater, of an underlying failure that transcends personal responsibility, that operates from a place in an personal-mythic cycle (a bit of Joyce stuff here) much bigger than either of you.

And you feel that, the power of that idea lurching through the song itself, defying the tender structure thus far, as her voice soars on "I can bear a lot, but not that pall", breaking shackles we'd perhaps forgotten it wore. Oh, but for all these ur-narratives and Arthurian traditions, is this not also just a passage about a poor woman bracing to be beaten by a man who can no longer stop himself? And you cannot narrativize any way for that to be forgivable or sensible. There is no way for this fable to be resolved into a lesson or reconciliation. The ruined kingdom is pitiable but not her quest.

The song moves into the final condemnation with a spirit then beyond resignation or defiance or defeat or triumph. It moves into its climax with an energy that I cannot place or name with anything else. I talked earlier about the "space" that seeing the songs performed live generated around the familiar recordings, how her spontaneous conversational changes freed up my understanding of the true nature of each line. But there is a place even in the recorded tracks where this space already existed... it is, appropriately, in silences. I talked about a perfect example of this with "Anecdotes": the sublime moment between "and we sing to the stars" and "and we sing in the meantime", as it functions as a sort of "rubato", really seems like it is free to last as long as you want... am I alone or crazy-sounding on this one? Does anyone get that sense, that there's some sort of magic space to that line, that it is somehow mutable in a dreamlike way where you really feel like you can really vividly picture her delaying her reentry indefinitely, and that all of those variants are simultaneously valid? And that the one you hear on the recording, even though it's the same one every time, is as surprising as any given choice among that infinitude?

AH, no, maybe that is crazy. It certainly sounds crazy when I read it back. But it isn't like I'm consciously thinking that, it's just a feeling, and this is honestly the most sensible way I can attempt to relate that feeling. The point, though, is that while I get that feeling on some little spaces on other songs, and they're all captivating and precious moments, the entire final verses of "Kingfisher" are just absolutely bathed in it. Every movement feels impossible... "We came by the boatload" is a line that feels like it occurs after a Berserk-length sea journey, but foobar reports that a mere 24 seconds passes since "Time, as it, flashing, passes"... I distrust these so-called objective measurements. I have played enough video games to know that you can enter things like "bullet time" at the push of a button, so why would I doubt that the concentrated efforts of brilliant musicians could bring this about in reality?

Seriously, though, the tragedy that unfolds in these verses is timeless in every sense of the word. We get a Joycean synchronization of a story of some prehistoric people adrift in the despair of the wake after a volcano's eruption, the devastation of the Fisher King's unsalvagable kingdom, and the battered speaker dreaming of her lover finally killing her. There is a dreamlike energy to it, and a dreamlike absence... Like the hallucinatory doves I experienced while listening to "Time, As A Symptom", my mind calls up a missing component to these verses that feels like a forgotten dream... It feels important, like a forgotten friend whose voice comes to mind without an image or name...

The song ends with a definitive condemnation of her lover, which leads nicely into "Does Not Suffice", the song about her departure, but the mystery of the final verses persists... It is the sort of mystery that hearkens back to your mystery cults and makes you think about the etymology wrt mythic and such. There is something happening here with time, and identity, and memory, and love, that feels like it dwells deep within a place she has more directly attempted to mine in Divers, like a proof of concept that predated its exploration.  It is difficult to line up the causality properly - did she happen upon this transcendant melody and then crafted the song around it, or did it somehow emerge from some critical density of beautiful and haunting images (there are so so many, and if this wasn't already too long I'd love to go line by line and praise each of them, but I can't say much more about any of them than "holy shit!" and "just picture it!!!")?

I mean, this stuff is like, the final boss, y'know? Talking about the ur- and ura-narratives that drive humanity in unspoken desires, and the very means by which we perceive our ever-present place in these mythic cycles. Being able to tap into these discussions and feelings while also reaching the crux of an individual crisis is the realm of only the finest deities of modern writing, a pantheon in which I will happily include Joanna Newsom.

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