I, admittedly, find albums that begin with a vaguely political or moralistic statement a bit off-putting. Accordingly, I could not help but cringe, however slightly, when I heard, recited in a quavering and nasal voice, “They put angels in the electric chair, electric chair,” on the first track of Silver Mt. Zion’s Horses in the Sky. Whether or not this is a defect in me is, I suppose, up for debate–what is important here, as far as I am concerned, is that despite my initially negative reaction, I could not help but be brought back into the song, with eager ears and a submissive variety of attentiveness, when that same quavering voice began maniacally chanting “Oh how we to and fro, to and fro,” as the band began to build up to a Bacchanalian hillbilly rave up that had me imagining bodies revolving around an enormous bonfire somewhere in the southern United States. And as the lyrical images began to build up, I found that they coalesced into something whole—that while they may seem somewhat trite or, in my case, cringe-worthy on their own, they had a place in a lyrical landscape that was being methodically composed over the eleven minutes that the song took to fully unfold. That song is “God Bless Our Dead Marines,” the album’s opening opus, and by the time Efrim Menuck begins to sing in a plaintive world weary whisper, “When the world is sick, can’t no one be well, but I dreamt we were all beautiful and strong,” backed by the voices of his band mates, I am unabashedly taken with the tune.
Through the circus of horrors related in the song—dead friends, a betrayed Ms. Nina Simone, and the namesake mutilated marines, we have come to a point, where still conscious of these atrocities, we are conscious as well of the persistence of hope and the persistence of dreams. And this is the point where I am granted a moment of clarity, and where I decide that the view being put forward is rather prescient, neither falling into a blind and bankrupt idealism, nor into a despairing, everything is shit, nothing can be done attitude. The lyrics don’t so much dwell in between these two poles as ricochet from one to the other, creating an overall effect. I did not know that this band was composed of members of Godspeed You! Black Emperor until I had listened to the album a few times, but that fact makes me feel as if I was correct in asserting that this is a band that should be judged, not in a small way, on lyrical content. Silver Mt. Zion is an opportunity for verbal expression, though that verbal expression is of course accompanied by music that often moves from quiet, sparsely ornamented meditations into cacophonous, heavily instumental romps.
Mountains made of Steam brought to mind, quite unexpectedly, Leonard Cohen, and I knew why, but I was also aware that this was not a place I expected to find him. The creepy Famous Blue Raincoat-ish “La La La La Las” that occur throughout the song let in the association, but that the song begins as a wordy folk tune did not escape me. It is nice to find an old friend in a new place, and it is, at times, telling, even if that place is quickly dissolved by a drowsy distortion strewn guitar line which casts you back into uncharted territory looking around, happily disoriented in a land of angels and mountains made of steam. These are songs with inspiration drawn from a variety of sources, first and foremost in the tradition of songs as vehicles for the examination of the world in which one is living.
What lies in the remaining four tracks is largely presaged by the first two, though there are other surprises to be found. The admonition of Canada contained in “Teddy Roosevelt’s Guns” made me curious as to what goes on in the land of our friendly neighbors to the north that I am not aware of. The picture painted is stark—cops and their guns, people that are drunk when they are young and broken by the slow machinations of aging. “Oh Canada, Oh Canada, I ain’t never been your son,” warbles Menuck, before the song is drowned in a squall of shrill strings and feedback, and in one final moment of lucidity we see what it is that is happening here, at bottom a rejection of what keeps us from living the beautiful lives that we are capable of conceiving and that we see in flashes, in between moments. And what is the solution someone blandly intones somewhere, not noticing the simple and innocent images of happiness that have been stitched in throughout the album, not noticing that the creation of an album like this is in itself an alternative, an exercise in freeing yourself from what oppresses you.
Godspeed You Black Emperor – Lift Your Skinny Fists Like Antennas to Heaven
The Dears – Protest
Leonard Cohen – I’m Your Man