Monday, November 30, 2009

Lyricist #5 - Collin Melloy

Storytelling is one of the most time-honored branches of songwriting. And while still pretty central to most genres of popular music, especially pop country music, the form has devolved, in many respects, into a paint-by-numbers routine. Then there's Collin Melloy. Whether its a concept album based on a Japanese folktale or theatrical tracks about seafarers or gymnasts (and regardless of how such stories strike your fancy), you must admit he is a true storyteller. I recognize the trust he has in his listeners. He tells stories full of metaphor and symbolism and action without talking down or oversimplifying.

One of the key tenets of writing is "show, don't tell." In his song "Red Right Ankle" he shows three stories, each one speaking to a different aspect of the same relationship. He doesn't hand it to you in a to-go bag, but instead relies confidently on the interpretation of the listener. That's hard to do without being overly cryptic and vague.

Red Right Ankle (mp3)
The Decemberists - Her Majesty The Decemberists (2003)

This is the story of your red right ankle and how it came to meet your leg. And how the muscle, bone, and sinews tangled and how the skin was softly shed. And how it whispered, "Oh, adhere to me, for we are bound by symmetry. And whatever differences our lives have been we together make a limb." This is the story of your red right ankle.

This is the story of your gypsy uncle you never knew because he was dead. And how his face was carved and ripped with wrinkles in the picture in your head. And remember how you found the key to his hideout in the Pyrenees? But you wanted to keep his secret safe, so you threw the key away. This is the story of your gypsy uncle.

This is the story of the boys who loved you, who love you now and loved you then. And some were sweet and some were cold and snuffed you, and some just layed around in bed. And some, they crumbled you straight to your knees-- did it cruel, did it tenderly. Some, they crawled their way into your heart to rend your ventricles apart. This is the story of the boys who loved you.

This is the story of your red right ankle.


I haven’t posted a whole lot lately. Life has been busy, and I’d rather be doing other things, I suppose. But the leaves are down now and every morning I scrape frost off my windshield, the decade's final condensed and frozen breath. And as is customary in death, I’ve been reflecting. On growth and stagnancy? On accomplishments and failures? On discoveries and dreams? On all things transcendent and spiritual? Sure, all those things are fine. But the focus of my reflection has been on the truly important: Pop Music!

This month I’ll post a little more than usual. Most of it will probably be music related. Most of it will be uninteresting to a majority of my friends. Most of it will probably be arranged in the dreaded list format. To begin with, I’m going to share five of my favorite lyricists of the decade, I’ll cover some favorite albums from the year/decade, and perhaps some favorite songs as well. But I don't want to pigeonhole myself too quickly. Are there any requests from anyone who cares (even remotely) about what my reflections are regarding any other aspect of the 00’s as we stand over its open grave?

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Where The Wild Things Are - a film review

(There are Spoilers ahead, of course. And I apologize for the long windedness. The Cliff’s Notes version of this review is that overall, for me, the film was only pretty good, though extremely beautiful to look at. There. You can move your Reader along now.)

Christy and I finally got to go see Where The Wild Things Are a few weeks ago. We were pretty excited about it. How could you not be with that trailer? The Arcade Fire song, Wake Up, which is featured in the preview quickly became one of my favorite songs when it was released years ago and, despite being borderline melodramatic, the song captures the wistful regret of our lost inner-child. “Something filled up my heart with nothing. Someone told me not to cry. But now that I’m older my heart is colder, and I can see that it’s a lie. Children, wake up! Hold your mistake up, before they turn the summer into dust. If the children don’t grow up, our bodies get bigger but our hearts get torn up. We’re just a million little gods causing rainstorms, turning every good thing to rust. I guess we’ll just have to adjust.” See? The lyrics aren’t speaking to ten year-olds here. They are speaking to the dormant child within the adult who has forgotten how to dream and how to trust instinct and feeling. We age, we get calloused, we scab, and as a result we make the mistake of repressing the better nature of our inner-child. So, children, wake up! Hold your mistake up! Before it’s too late.

And that should have been clue number one that WTWTA was not going to be primarily a children’s movie (as it was marketed to be). We had planned to take our three-year-old, and after reading one review decided against it (thankfully). Visually the film is amazing. Spike Jonze gets such unique imagery in all his work and there are no false steps here in terms of cinematography (like I’m an expert, right?). The soundtrack, by Karen O, is marvelous, including a particularly touching rendition of the Daniel Johnston tune, "Worried Shoes." Spot on voice work from every single one of the Wild Things (James Gandolfini, Catherine O’Hara, Forrest Whittaker, Lauren Ambrose, Chris Cooper, Paul Dano). All nail it perfectly. Max himself (played by namesake Max Records) did a superb acting job as well. Catherine Keener is golden in her role, and for me her interactions with Max were so meaningful they overshadowed every other relationship in the film. There is one little moment in particular when Max is camped out on his back underneath his Mom’s desk at home. She is making phone calls and by all accounts seems to be an expert at juggling both motherly and professional duties. Max isn’t begging for her attention at this point, but he wants it. He reaches over to her foot and tenderly tugs on the toe of her nylon and they exchange this mother-son look that carries all the humanity you might ever hope to catch on film. Yet in the end the film lacked enough of these moments, and it’s been hard to put my finger on exactly why.

I liked the film, but I expected to love it, and I did not love it. The film’s setup was terrific. From the opening scene until Max gets to where the wild things are (and even for a little while afterwards) the film is strong. But then I went over some emotional drop off, and couldn't ever quite return. My best guess is that the writing was a bit too cryptic, and some of the metaphor was a bit too heavy handed. Christy told me on the way home (and I agree with her) that she couldn’t stop asking herself “What does that symbolize?” which ultimately became distracting. On NPR Spike Jonze mentioned that every one of the Wild Things represented an emotion. Emotions, especially for kids, are tricky to deal with and a lot of my frustration in the movie stemmed from seeing Max deal with his emotions just as one might expect—like a child. Symbolically, his relationships with these wild emotions make sense, but the balancing act on screen doesn’t play out so graceful (and no doubt certainly wasn’t meant to, yet that doesn’t invalidate my frustration). The owls “Bob and Terry” are also a bit of a mystery. My guess is that they were a clunky similitude of the real life relationships that Max doesn’t understand, or perhaps doesn’t want to understand (ie: his mother’s boyfriend, bosses, and his sister’s friends). The thrust of the middle section of the movie deals with Max's efforts in this dream, wherein he is a king with the ability to do whatever he wants, to construct (literally) a perfect world. The old Utopia concept. But he ultimately fails, and after all hell breaks loose with the Wild Things he comes to the very real-life conclusion that no such world is possible. It is the other side of the “Wake Up” dichotomy -- that in our inevitable coming-of-age we wake up to the fact that life is hard, and death is real, and there are lots of hard questions and nauseatingly few easy answers. Interestingly enough, when Max discovers this he is not only better equipped to deal with his “real world” but he actually longs to go back. I felt that the ending, much like the beginning, was strong.

My little 3 year old, Gus, loves the book. When we read it together, there are certain phrases that I’m allowed to say, and certain phrases that only he is allowed to say. When Max is being sassy with his mom he lays down a threat, “I’ll eat you up”. Gus delivers the line with sinister eyebrows and a smile. Later on we get to my favorite, and most telling moment in our little exchange. Max’s reign as king has come to and end and it is time for him to go. His threat from the beginning of the book now morphs into an expression of compassion and longing. I let it out like a sad wild thing, “Please don’t go, we’ll eat you up, we love you so”. And Gus delivers Max’s reply with a curt, matter-of-fact, and almost hopeful, “No.”

Kids are resilient and adaptable (“I guess we’ll just have to adjust”). They need to be loved like all the world, and it should be shown and expressed often. But they don’t need to be pandered to. And adults certainly don’t either. WTWTA, despite its hangups, does not do that.