Furniture - “Brilliant Mind”
[At the time of this post, Furniture does not have an official website]
Anne Clark - “Sleeper in Metropolis”
There are well-established formulas for pop music - 4/4 time, simple structure, combinations of certain instruments, accessible lyrics, a melody that’s easy to sing and remember. The more one departs from these norms, the more an audience is likely to notice the song itself, rather than accept it without question, as pop encourages us to do.
Anne Clark’s ‘Sleeper in Metropolis’ was never intended to be a hit song. Sure, the 4/4 time signature is there, and the four bar loop is exceedingly simple. But a spoken word artist who collaborates with a keyboard player (David Harrow) is unlikely to write simple lyrics, nor is she likely to come up with a great melodic hook since she had no intention to sing at all. Somehow, though, ‘Sleeper in Metropolis’ became an instant cult classic. I suppose cult classics are revered as much because of their eccentricities as despite them, but thankfully this one avoids the ‘novelty song’ epithet, which is an accomplishment for a spoken word song.
It’s a hypnotic dancefloor experience, pessimistic but relentless in its forward motion, with a subject reinforced by a low-tech synth and drum loop arrangement. Because the song is about the malaise brought on by the domination of machines over nature, a sterile electronic arrangement seemingly created by a cleanroom, rather than in one, is only fitting. The song clearly inhabits the time in the early eighties when anxiety about the culture of technology was vogue (think Blade Runner, 1984, Brazil.)
’As a sleeper in metropolis / you are insignificance.’ It’s a great first line because since it couldn’t be sung, it sets the tone for and justifies the spoken word meditation that follows. This metropolis is not a monster or a macroorganism as it is portrayed in many modernist works, but a vacuum collecting nullity and futility. Anne compares it to a cancer, a disease that devours all in its path, but nothing is anthropomorphized, and the spreading deathliness is superseded by the deathliness of the city itself.
The body has become an inconvenience. Air conditioning has outmoded breathing, and viscose has obsoleted skin. All the ghosts in our machines - dreams, desires, love - are filtered and manipulated by the technology around us to warp them into paranoia. Any resistance is easily trumped by the city. The citizens of metropolis are zombies, automatons, drones, barely conscious, victims of the urban triumph they labored to create.
It’s bleak to say the least, but something in Anne’s voice embodies the last elements of humanity, of organic will. Her manner might have been the inspiration for the public announcement voices in 1984, but cockney-like hints in her speech, and the way her accents fall on the most sentimental words (soft, warm, love, contact) make it clear that she observes these things not as a clone but as a rebel, a one-woman resistance movement, hoping to shake just one of us out of our tranquilized complacency.
Among the clatter and repetition of machines that surround her (each loop is punctuated by the coldest interpretation of the most basic dance music convention, the double handclap), Anne hopes to wake us up and prod us into action. ‘Sleeper in Metropolis’ wants to make us dance, but the relationship between dancing and being free is subverted; if we dance, are we submitting to the sequencer’s control, or are we asserting our individuality? I believe it’s the latter: While machines might be able to mimic dancing, they will never be able to dance well, because they will never dance with spirit.
Anne Clark followed ‘Sleeper in metropolis’ with the similar ‘Our Darkness’, and the themes of modern alienation have appeared repeatedly in her work, though not always as starkly. But the tension between human and machine is captured most perfectly in this track. ‘Love is dead in metropolis’, but it’s an epic death.
Anne Clark official website
Asylum Party - “Misfortunes”
Daysleepers - “Stereo Honey”
John Grant - “Pale Green Ghosts”
Cygnets - “Leave the Prophets Dead Where They Lie”
Woodkid - “I Love You” (directed by Yoann Lemoine, 2013)
Shriekback - “Nemesis”
My equivocally favorite contemporary literary critic is Harold Bloom. (I say equivocally because Mr. Bloom occasionally cannot resist his urge to be an onanistic know-it-all.) In his life-changing (for me) book The Western Canon he develops the compelling concept of strangeness as a primary consideration to the canonicity, or primacy, of a work of literature. In an oversimplified nutshell, a great work possesses a nature that either assimilates us (changes what we understand to be the very nature of that artform) or forces us to encounter it on its own terms, forever holding us at an intrigued distance. I think in many ways this concept applies as well to the modern music canon as it does to the great works of literature.
How quintessentially strange (and therefore great) is Shriekback’s ‘Nemesis’, then? I marvel at how fiercely it holds its own, forcing us to reconsider what a great song is capable of being and doing.
After a single beat introduction, ‘Nemesis’ just crashes into existence, full throttle. It’s rock, though there is something resembling a funky scratch disco guitar in there. The song bangs in an industrial fashion, but it’s generally more organic than what we commonly consider industrial. There’s plenty of synthesizer, but not in a particularly new wave form. It’s not quite goth, though it’s gotten plenty of play with the goths, and there is the subject matter…
If there is a painted allegory to ‘Nemesis’, it’s Hieronymus Bosch’s The Last Judgement. If there’s a literary equivalent, it’s The Book Of Revelations. I’m not kidding; consider the chorus: ‘Priests and cannibals / prehistoric animals / Everybody happy as the dead come home / Big black nemesis / parthenogenesis / No one move a muscle as the dead come home.’ Throughout the song is a laundry list of Biblical (‘Very little food is forbidden’) and apocalyptic (‘my dreams are visions’) references, involving torture, murder and a freaky cast of characters.
‘Nemesis’ is a vivid description of a monotheistic world that has been overrun by hedonism and is just about to feel the full wrath of its creator. ‘How bad it gets / you can’t imagine / The burning wax / the breath of reptiles / God is not mocked / He knows our business / Karma could take us / at any moment’ The Greeks and Romans who figure contextually in Revelations are explicitly referenced. Far from an easy horror movie narrative, this song is disarmingly sophisticated in its imagery.
Without hearing the song, one might expect that ‘Nemesis’ is quite the downer, a real kill-joy. Quite the contrary; the male lead vocals are an oddly satisfied snarl, and the everybody-and-their-screeching-sister backing vocals are a Dionysian frenzy accompanied, one imagines, by dithyrambic flailing. If Rome is burning, Shriekback are fiddling away, adding fervor and fanning the flames. I am hard pressed to come up with another song that describes the end of the world like the announcer at an S&M halftime show. The strongest candidate might be Siouxsie & The Banshees’ Pompeiians ‘caught in the throes’ as their city is buried in dust, and that song is a masterpiece, but it is told through the eyes of dispassionate archaeologists, and its tone is austere in comparison to the exhilaration of ‘Nemesis’.
The most alarming moment in the song slips by in the second verse, perhaps without the listener realizing its implications at first. The narrator has told us that ‘evil is an exact science / carefully, correctly wrong’ and has described drinking elixirs from the juices of the dying. But he changes tone for a moment to insist, ‘We are not monsters / We’re moral people / And yet we have / the strength to do this’ Soon enough, though, he’s back at it: ‘Cover him up / I think we’re finished…’
Not monsters? Moral people? How do you figure? In the midst of this chaos of sound and barrage of destructive images, the perpetrators assert their possession of balance, humanity, discernment of right and wrong. For me that is profound - because if it’s true, these people are the same as you and I, but as the apocalypse approaches they have sold out like the Vichy regime and are looting every shop window they can break.
That kernel of pitch-black darkness is the deepest layer of this brilliant song. On top, a noisy pre-industrial goth anthem. Next down, a creepy narrative of a deathly carnival. Below that, an erudite survey of apocalyptic symbols (with a dark sense of humor, don’t forget). Underneath it all, the conviction that when we are faced with our own moment of revelation, many of us will knowingly choose evil and enjoy it. And just think, you can dance your way through the whole thing.
Shriekback have been a vibrant, ever-changing, on-again, off-again project for 25 years, exploring different musics with different musicians. At the time of ‘Nemesis’ their ranks included former members of Gang Of Four, XTC, and Damned, and the sublime Clare Torry, who has a remarkable history of collaborative vocal credits, and whose backing vocals are the icing on this cake. Oil & Gold, the album that contains ‘Nemesis’ in a loose song cycle, is an excellent place to start with Shriekback, but surprises await you before that album and after.
‘Nemesis’ for me is Shriekback at their zenith, firing on all cylinders, encouraging us to feel very viscerally the erotic asphyxiation our culture has designed for its fate. (I urge you, too, to seek out the excellent ‘arch deviant’ remix; while it squanders some of the momentum of the original, it ramps up the dithyrambic vocals to even greater heights. Consider the music video, too, that trucks freely in visual references from Bosch to Picasso.) ‘Nemesis’ sets us amazedly on a dance floor that foreshadows another dance with far greater implications.
Soft Moon - “Die Life”