This is a review of the new Sufjan Stevens album Illinois! You can stop right now if you want. If you’re reading this webzine, or any webzine, or if you listen to NPR or your local college station, you can rightfully assume that Stevens can do no wrong, and on his latest disc, your assumption will be entirely on the mark. Stevens is the singer songwriter equivalent of Superman, who gets both a song devoted to him, and his visage prominently featured in the cover art [editor’s note: which has since been removed due to legal issues]. The singer can throw out extraordinary turns of phrases as effortlessly as the man of steel can throw a bus 20 city blocks. Yet despite their supernatural talents both men are, at their core, relatively modest guys. Although both have their weakness, kryptonite for Superman, lack of restraint for Stevens, they are petty, easily ignorable flaws that never hamper the style with which both are able to perform heroics.
“COME ON FEEL THE ILLINOISE! [Capitalization mandatory] Part 1: The world’s Columbian Exposition, Part 2: Carl Sandburg visits me in a dream.” Not even the longest title on the album, and already we’re using multiple sentences. A track this spectacular warrants it and the metamorphosis this track undergoes at its halfway point is nearly impossible to put into words. To do it little justice, it starts out a jazz number about architecture and ends several minutes later a folk song replete with delicate string arrangement where Stevens admits “I cried myself to sleep last night,” asking himself “are you writing from the heart?” The next track is the answer to that question, and it is a resounding yes. “John Wayne Gacy, JR.” a stoic piano based number chronicles the Illinois-born serial killer, and contains a couplet destined to bring silence to any conversation. The line “Twenty seven people / even more / they were boys / with their cars / summer jobs / oh my god,” is sung in a voice teetering on a whisper, as if it were Gacy trying to calm one of his victims. The song ends with the album’s most haunting moment, its closing line where Stevens divulges, “in my best behavior, I am really just like him.” The lyrics of Illinois are what happen when the beautiful poetry of John K. Samson or Isaac Brock are stripped of their tangled metaphors and shoved into the mouth of a plainspoken man.
And the music! Although there are certainly other songwriters who have jumped from genre to genre as much as Stevens does, there are none who have done it with such energy and love. When Elliott Smith tried it, he sounded half-hearted, like he really wanted to strip back down to a solitary guitar. When Rufus Wainwright tries it as he did on the colossal failure Want Two, it sounds tacky. Perhaps it is because Stevens plays 75 percent of the instruments on the album, but the backup singers, trumpet, banjo, accordion, organ, and host of other instruments all blend together into a cacophony of percussion and melody. There is not one second when the musicianship on this album is anything less than inspired. The disco of “They are Night Zombies…” sounds just as convincing as the chug-rock of “Chicago,” which is just as enthralling as the banjo-led “Decatour.”
But you’ve heard this all before, and you’ve probably heard it with more eloquence and wit than what I have put forth. So what do I have to add to the chorus of praise? A slight voice of dissent. What, after all of this, is the flaw that I mentioned earlier, which stops this from being a great album, despite being a great collection of songs? It is too much- far too much. The closest comparison point (and the last truly extraordinary singer-songwriter album) I can think of for Illinois is Badly Drawn Boy’s epic debut The Hour of Bewilderbeast. That album, clocking in at well over an hour with 18 tracks, worked so well because it had an arc, one that goes deeper than the natural quiet-loud-quiet track progression. That album had an arc that strung through each song’s lyrics, as well as through the numerous instrumental tracks. On Illinois, each of the 22 tracks sound like they were simply thrown at random onto the album, and the constant instrumental interludes (which range from 20 second noise experiments to jazz piano solos) break down any momentum that begins to build. I have yet to listen to this album in its entirety, and I don’t know if it would benefit the music to attempt the task. Taken in small doses as a hastily assembled mix tape of extraordinary songs, the album is easily enjoyable and very rewarding (I’d suggest taking breaks after track 9, then again after track 15).
In a music scene where singer / songwriters seem to associate a smile with a failure and emotional openness with some sort of wound, it is simply revitalizing to have an adventurous, brilliant artist like Sufjan Stevens making records. Yes, Illinois is a very bloated record, and I already have made a copy of the disc without the instrumentals, but that does not mean its many adventurous, life affirming tracks are any less brilliant.
Willie Nelson’s “Sad Songs and Waltzes” and the Art of Alienation
The hard-won wisdom about the human toll that capitalist alienation extracts is what makes Willie Nelson’s “Sad Songs and Waltzes” so beautifully devastating
Someday, when the world finally loses Willie Nelson, there will be an eruption of sadness. He is an icon, yet many people will still be shocked at the depth and profundity of his body of work. At this point already, the unbroken length and quality of his career is almost without precedent in American music. He has simply been here so long it seems he has always been here doing what he does. And his music has defied easy categorization, slipping seamlessly between wide varieties of country music, jazz, and American standards. He is probably the artist for whom the term “Americana” was most properly invented.
Yet his career can be divided into rather neatly-defined stages. For many people, myself included, his most interesting stage is probably his brief stint with Atlantic Records in the early 1970s. Atlantic had just begun a Country division and Nelson was brought in as a cornerstone for that new endeavor. The experiment was not long; Nelson ended up recording only two albums under the Atlantic label, Shotgun Willie and Phases and Stages, but the two albums worked out to be an essential bridge in Nelson’s gradual transformation from a fixture of the Nashville establishment to an iconic Outlaw and the singular artist we know and love today. Without these works, there is no path to Red Headed Stranger or Stardust or the collaborations with Waylon Jennings and Merle Haggard that would come to define Country music in the decades to come.
Here I want to discuss the simple, singular genius of one song from this period, “Sad Songs and Waltzes” from Shotgun Willie. The song perfectly embodies the artistic maturity gained by Nelson’s long breakup with the Nashville machine. And the hard lessons learned by that process show up in the song’s spare production, which works with its deceptively simple lyrics to show how market economies alienate human beings from themselves and one another.
“Sad Songs and Waltzes” and Willie Nelson’s Career
Nelson was pushing 40 when Shotgun Willie was released. He was a longtime fixture in the Nashville music business, mainly as a songwriter (he was a hit maker for many other artists, writing songs like “Crazy” for Patsy Cline). As a solo artist himself, however, Nelson was constrained by the producer-centric power structures of The Nashville Sound. His ambitions were too large to be contained for long, however.
Nelson had already experimented musically. For example, he released a beautiful yet enigmatic concept album in 1971 called Yesterday’s Wine, which began the process of pushing his way out of the mold Nashville had formed him in. Eventually, he would leave RCA and Nashville altogether, moving to Austin, Texas and, in that strange mix of bikers, cowboys, and hippies, Willie Nelson as we now know him began to invent himself.
This is the world into which Shotgun Willie, and its third song “Sad Songs and Waltzes” was born.
With only a single guitar, alternating bass notes between plucky strums to create a (you guessed it) waltz, and backed by a distant steel guitar, the song begins “I’m writing a song all about you. A true song as real as my tears. But you’ve no need to fear it, ‘cause no one will hear it. ‘Cause sad songs and waltzes aren’t selling this year.”
This utterly simply, yet devastatingly powerful opening tells the whole story. A man, an artist, is betrayed by his love and longs to express it through his art. The power of the marketplace makes this an impossibility. He is left both without a woman and without a song to mourn her absence. This is the purest tragedy.
Essentially the song, like many country songs, tells a story about a man who has lost a relationship with a woman. This is a rather normal part of human life, but human relations are flexible and people typically have the ability to craft new relationships in the wake of these breakups. The speaker in this song is deprived of that opportunity. The purpose of his art, the song he sings about writing, is to forge a relationship between him and his audience. His artistic expression is an extension of his humanity, his self. Sadly, this self does not exist outside the controls of the marketplace. His song will remain unsung because “sad songs and waltzes aren’t selling this year.”
The chorus puts it in even more starkly economic terms. “It’s a good thing that I’m not a star. You don’t know how lucky you are. Though my record may say it, no one will play it. ‘Cause sad songs and waltzes aren’t selling this year.” Perhaps if our singer were more famous he could escape the cage built for him by the music industry, but he is not. Therefore, any effort to make art from his pain — art that might forge a relationship between him and an audience — is in vain. No one would play it in the first place as it is not marketable.
One particularly interesting feature of this song is its meta approach to songwriting. It is, in simple terms, a song about a song. This is not a particularly novel concept in itself, with the supreme example probably being the first verse of Leonard Cohen’s ubiquitous “Hallelujah.” “Sad Songs and Waltzes” provides a fascinating twist on the genre, however. This is a song about another song that no one has heard, nor will they, for economic reasons that we will get into in a bit.
This is not merely clever, it is a formal feature that contributes to the song’s meaning. “Sad Songs and Waltzes” is a song is about alienation. And the singer of this song is so alienated from his personal art that he can only sing about it at a distance. It represents an ultimate form of alienation.
Alienation and Markets
Alienation is a devastating consequence of life lived under the control of markets. This is a central point in the writings of Marx and other critics of capitalism. The moving around of money in the quest to extract profit makes us all, in one way or another, cogs in a capital-producing machine, and Nashville certainly was and remains one of those.
Like many talented artists working in Nashville, Nelson had been alienated from the fruit of his labor. He was put to work writing songs for other people to sing to create income for his record company. And when we was permitted to record his music himself, it simply wasn’t Willie Nelson as we know him. Seriously, look at his early album covers and try not to laugh at how uncomfortably not Willie Nelson he looks.
And just as Nelson had been forcibly removed from his authentic self, alienation extends beyond our relationships with the products of our labor. It also emerges as a barrier between individuals, interfering with proper relationships among human beings. Forced to sell our labor for wages, other people lose their individual identities and become mere competitors, making human cooperation difficult to achieve. We become, above all, alienated from ourselves and other people on a natural, human level when subjected to the demands of money-making. We lose our status as fully embodied people, having been reduced to a figure in some equation to determine the bottom line.
Its hard-won wisdom about the human toll that capitalist alienation extracts is what makes “Sad Songs and Waltzes” so beautifully devastating. The betrayed singer is alone and must remain alone because he cannot spin his pain into enough profit for the bean-counters.
When Shotgun Willie was produced, Nelson had only recently emerged from the Nashville money machine. He had spent years conforming himself to the demands of that industry, stifling his creative self in service of its products. This professional history provides insight into the source of a career frustration that finally exploded into songs like “Sad Songs and Waltzes.”
The move to Austin, a place that was weird and incomprehensible to the logic of the Nashville scene helped break him from his binds. Hanging out with the hippies and hillbillies of that unique and idiosyncratic music scene allowed him to develop something closes to an authentic artistic self and it set the stage for his many career reinventions. He became, in many ways, country music’s best answer to Bob Dylan in this way.
When he eventually returns to Nashville it is as a bonafide “outlaw” with the rest of that movement largely founded on its rebellion against the Nashville Machine. Waylon Jennings’s “Are You Sure Hank Done It This Way” is a good example of how the Outlaw movement wore an open animosity against how Nashville’s system stifled individual creativity and forced it back down the throat of that very system. Capitalism being what it is of course, Nashville eventually found a way to coerce profit out of the artistic forms that rose up against it, bringing the enemy into the fold as it were. Outlaw Country became the defining sound of 1970s Nashville.
Still, Willie Nelson’s Atlantic Records period serves as an inspiration. It is a moment when an artist well into his career finds the strength to reinvent himself and claim significant ownership over his own art, taking a career full of alienation and molding it into a new form of art that would indeed forge powerful human relationships with a new audience for decades to come. It might even be said that he took a share of the means of production, with the product being Willie Nelson.
A Night with Northlane
Josh Hockey went to go see Northlane in Melbourne and took photographer Albert LaMontagne with him to capture the night.
Settling in to 170 Russell would have been nice, but as we stepped in at the allocated 6:30 door time we were greeted with the start of Void Of Vision’s set. Sprinting down the stairs and into the room, it was clear that moving the door time forward half an hour had definitely affected the crowd.
A decent audience had streamed in, but nowhere big enough considering the year Void Of Vision has had. Releasing their magnum opus album, Hyperdaze, they have been on an absolute tear, and it was clear during this set that they were going to keep going hard.
Opening up by bringing the heavy early, Void had the room shaking from the world go. An impressive light show and an almighty wall of sound filled the room with layers upon layers of adrenaline. Vocalist Jack Bergin led this assault, bringing as much energy as he possibly could, whilst utilising his seemingly endless amounts of stage presence.
New songs like “Babylon” and “Hole In Me” showcased their new sound, while “Kill All Your Friends” got the pit going like it always does. They finished strong with “Ghost In The Machine” and left their stamp on 170 Russell.
International act Silent Planet were up next. A pretty much completely new band to me, I was immediately impressed by the connection they appeared to have with their audience. From the word go, the pit was open, and everyone in the front few row was singing along with all the passion in the world.
Spoken word vocals mixed with harsh screams ensured that vocalist Garrett kept the audience on their toes. The instrumentals kept up this pace as well, with their hard hitting dark tones unrelentingly assaulting the ears of all listeners (in a good way).
Silent Planet sounded incredibly large all the way through, and definitely would have made themselves some new fans on the night. Their music appeared to be full of themes of mental illness, and political issues, which is absolutely super important in today’s societal climate.
Counterparts were up next. Definitely a well known band, the heavy Canadians immediately made clear the tone of the set announcing themselves with a call of, “Counterparts Schoolies Week Motherfucker.” They launched into their first song and it was immediately clear why they are as acclaimed as they are. Ridiculously tight and sounding stupidly massive, they had fans moving from the second they started playing.
The shit talking between sets would have been the highlight, but the songs themselves made it hard to top. Playing the old classics as well as the new heavy-hitters, there was as much two stepping as there was singing along. Also this was perhaps the first time in history I heard a pitcall of “schoolies 2019 motherfucker open it up,” which was an experience that I’m glad I had.
Dedicating a song to Australia’s very own Trophy Eyes, their massive sound continued unrelentingly. Coming towards the end, the set closed with a wave of crowdsurfers all diving and climbing towards the microphone, trying to get ahold of vocalist Brendan so they could scream his words right back at him. This set was great, and I’m quite sad I personally am not a Counterparts super fan so I couldn’t join in the fun. Next time boys. Next time.
Finally it was time for the big dogs, Northlane. The lights went down and hands went up, ready to go and awaiting the bands arrival impatiently, the audiences cravings would soon be met. Northlane charged onto stage and belted into “Talking Heads.” The movement was huge from the start, and the audience was off their feet and jumping non-stop all the way through.
“Details Matter” was a definite highlight of the set, with the ridiculously massive sound of one of the better songs of 2019 running rampant through 170 Russell. Headbangers were aplenty and moshers were in surplus. This continued even into one of their softer songs, “Rot.” The first song released by the band with vocalist Marcus Bridge, “Rot” went down an absolute treat as always.
Northlane are a ludicrously tight live band, and this became ever more clear as they smashed through “Citizen, “Obelisk”, and “4D.” New party song “Eclipse” had the room shaking as everyone refused to stop bouncing. The set began to come to a close as massive Alien single “Bloodline” was the definite highlight of the show. It has been one of my favourite songs of the year, and this rendition locked that in even more. Cannons and lights were ablaze and firing everywhere, and made this even more of a spectacle.
Leaving stage momentarily, Northlane returned as Marcus came back wearing a big sparkly coat. “Sleepless”, the closing track of the album was incredibly effective and touching live. And was a nice sombre end to the show, right before they launched into the timeless heavy classic, “Quantum Flux.” And goddamn was it massive.
Northlane are one of the best bands out there, and this show only locked that in.
Check out the images from the Northlane show:
All photos by Albert LaMontagne. Copyright 2019 Albert LaMontagne / Sound the Sirens Magazine. Please do not use or distribute these images without the permission of Albert LaMontagne. If you use these images without permission, you are a terrible person.