A defense of John Vanderslice

September 11 by Gerhard Richter
Chief among the faults of my decrepit Mazda is the almost complete lack of a sound system. After 18 years, all that’s left is the right front speaker, a speaker that was undoubtedly pretty cruddy even its prime. Now it’s fairly staticky and to hear anything while driving (especially over my roaring engine… what exhaust pipe?) you have to crank the volume until distortion and fuzz is pretty much the norm. So on the one hand, it completely sucks. But there’s a certain charm, especially since “fuzzy” describes a lot of good music anyway (shoegazer, etc). It gives rock ‘n roll a certain raw sound, an immediacy that has some lo-fi appeal to me. If you need to hear clear highs and sharp lows… well forget it. So, great for The White Stripes but not so hot for jazz or most classical.

Listening to John Vanderslice’s Emerald City often reminds me of music in my Mazda. Describing Emerald City, Jason Lymangrover says “audiophiles may be disturbed by the overdriven acoustic guitars… that give an unnerving sensation of blown speaker cones.” This sums up a lot of what I love about the album though, since it’s the way I hear almost all music in my car and since I’ve come to afford a certain fondness for that over-amplified acoustic style.

There’s another major reason I love Emerald City and it has to do with Vanderslice’s themes of dread, angst, and general malaise mostly stemming from September 11th. I agree with David Raposa that the “concluding thesis ‘looks like September won once again’ hangs over the entire album.” Except I consider this a great thing, whereas Raposa finds this to be Vanderslice’s primary problem. I think Arcade Fire’s Neon Bible is a post-9/11 album as well and consider these two of the very best albums of 2007. Musically, Raposa concedes that “Vanderslice is on top of his game” and calls the writing “eloquent.” But where Metacritic scores Emerald City an 8.2 and I’m liable to push for a 9, Raposa and Pitchfork settle for a pretty weak 6.2. I feel justified in bitching because Raposa’s review is a nice lesson in missing the point. He never explains why obsessing over 9/11 should be considered a weakness.

Heath pointed me to The Triggering Town: Lectures and Essays on Poetry and Writing by Richard Hugo. It’s a short but supremely wise book, applicable to more than just poetry. In chapter 2 there’s a relevant discussion:

If you are a private poet, then your vocabulary is limited by your obsessions. It doesn’t bother me that the word “stone” appears more than thirty times in my third book, nor that “wind” and “gray” appear over and over in my poems to the disdain of some reviewers. If I didn’t use them that often I’d be lying about my feelings, and I consider that unforgivable. In fact, most poets write the same poem over and over. Wallace Stevens was honest enough not to try to hide it. [Robert] Frost’s statement that he tried to make every poem as different as possible from the last one is a way of saying that he knew he it couldn’t be.

Likewise, I do not mind that “lightning” plays the same role for Vanderslice, nor do I think it a fault that the poem he continuously writes is one about September 11th and how to deal/confront/understand that day and its aftermath. For me, further complicating emotions are wrapped up in 9/11 because of where I was in my life then: barely graduated from high school, days away from starting college. Throw in a new country with a new president, and “time of transition” seems like an understatement. If 9/11 does not loom large in Raposa’s conciousness, it is not a shortcoming or failing (I’m not charging him with being callous or uncaring), just one more way of making our way in this world. To criticize an entire album on this one point is fairly suspect in my opinion. If Raposa would prefer different vocabularies, different stories, different themes then he might simply pass on reviewing an album he’s pre-disposed to dislike.

Of course, all this discussion of 9/11 may lead you to falsely believe Emerald City is nothing but heavy-handed references to crashing planes. There is not a single weak song on the album, but “White Dove” (mp3) is a clear standout for me and does not even obliquely mention the Twin Towers. In it Vanderslice tells the story (comprised of truthiness no doubt) of a conversation with his elderly neighbor. She apparently had an eight-year-old daughter who was kidnapped and then brutally slaughtered even after they paid the ransom. It’s a truly heartbreaking song, told in tones reminiscent of Sufjan Steven’s “John Wayne Gacy Jr.” Except here the anger is even closer to boiling over, and the song is poignant for the juxtaposition of the fact of violence with the metaphor of peace (white dove) — Vanderslice rightly points out that in the face of extreme evil, simple questions of justice, mercy, and forgiveness suddenly take on new, complicated/ing dimensions.

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