Monday, March 10, 2008

American graffiti versus American modernism.

The drift toward the kind of vaporous sensuality that American Graffiti’s image of the fifties might have opened up onto, or the surge and release of heavy rock are both consistently and self-consciously undercut, especially so in the last few Ubu albums and solo releases that lead into the Fontana years, sensualist indulgences chastened by modernist, angular anti-groovism, all choppy timings, squalls of synth, frenetic drum patterns, lopsided riffs, breathless yodeling, a Futurist hyper-alertness and hyper-individualism in the face of the one-nation-under-a-groove hedonic or headbanging drowsiness. Ubu, for all their textural experimentation have always been about piercing you, wrong-footing you, recalibrating expectations. Where dub influences do turn up, for instance in “Codex” from “Dub Housing” with its fluorescent guitar line going up like a flare against the enveloping darkness, its skanking, slave-ship rhythm section and mournful lyrics, (re-visited in “Rhythm King” on the “Tenement Year”) they’re used to pointedly lugubrious effect, stripped of up-fullness and sunshine. Ubu use dub to sound the depths of their misery, to set themselves resonating to even deeper frequencies of melancholy and estrangement.

The refusal of the diffuse, the drifting, the languorous within Ubu, or at least the struggle against it, is both anti-hippy, true-aesthete-asexuality and partly a protest against the decline of Modernism’s Technological Sublime. If the Technological Sublime supplants the angst of frontier man confronted with the vastness of American wilderness by means of an equally vast and monumental subduing and ordering of its dazzling emptiness, a humanist sublime supplanting the darker, inhuman “pure” sublime of nature, then with the break up and decline of traditional industry as capital enters its liquid phase, the “Darkness at the edge of town” begins to reclaim the souls of its inhabitants. Modernism’s aesthetic ideals are martially reasserted in the face of it’s unfulfilled promise, Capitalism brought under the power of the human will, its amorphousness limned, its contours drawn momentarily into focus and fixed, the fantasy that somehow it can be arrested or harnessed, crisply defined, contained. “A mighty maze but not without a plan.”

“Who stole America?”

One thing that has remained constant is Ubu’s packaging: its repeated sleeve shots of industrial deadzones, abandoned buildings, anonymous lots, distant bridges, as though capital really were a monstrous physical entity rampaging across the land and strewing the wreckage behind it. Something has been through here. For Ubu the promise of modernism, its dialectical optimism, is being pulled away from them just as they reach manhood, they are committed to the future, a notion of progress, the possibility of artistic maturity and the future is already lost, sold. Much of the Fontana years finds Thomas trailing in the wake of the changes that have been wrought on the landscape of his youth, wondering where it all went. How this world he once knew has been conjured away, “ the good and the bad, the things that we had/ now they’re parking lots.”

Three attempts at a telling synthesis:


The two great images of twentieth-century alienation are Munch’s “The Scream” and Edward Hopper’s “Nighthawks at the Diner.”

While “The Scream” approaches the viewer, tries to communicate something to them, reaching out of the frame, entreating us, Hopper’s subjects are always at a distance, lost, folded in on themselves, pure objects, so resigned to their lives they’ve been drained of interiority. Night thick around them as though the bar itself were floating in space. If the vital energy of European angst is turned outward, can still be a demand, a disruption of reality then the vital energy of America is inward, tending toward self-regulation, a pallid, heartsick homeostasis.

The two great existential figures, the man behind the wheel of his car seeking out the impossible promise somewhere in the heart of the American night, the poet maudit, raging at reality. Cutely, Pere Ubu have a record that might well sum up this European/ American distinction: "One man drives while the other man screams.”

Although perhaps Hopper has his own version of the Scream, the pale, imploring public deathmask of...

Gene Pitney/ Cathy Berberian

Thomas’ trademark vocal technique for most of the pre-Fontana year’s solo works was an eccentrically anti-melodic doo-wopping whoop that slowly evolved into a scalded eunuch's yelping falsetto, a litany of gelded whinnies and snorts. This is partly Thomas deciding to make an avant-virtue out of necessity. His is not a rock voice, no rasp, no grain, no edge, no command, no attack, no cool, no blues. He has no option but to push forward into shrill music-concrete abstraction. Why must I be a Dadaist teenage in love? highly strung, flibbertigibbet with pre-ejaculatory panic. This is part of the flight from rock’s machismo and philistine phallocentrism, an asexual anti-language, words collapsed, crushed and mangled. It’s only once we return to the Heartland that words become important again.

Alfred Jarry/ Sam Peckinpah

Thomas is about to present an adaptation of Jarry’s Ubu Roi under the title “Bring me the head of Ubu Roi”, and attempt, we can only assume at this stage, to combine Peckinpah’s heroic American absurdism with Jarry’s heroic European absurdism. Thirty years on the quest remains the same, whatever seeming detours have been taken along the way.

A quote.

Absurdly, all this could have been avoided with a simple quote from Tzara’s Dadaist manifesto:

“a howling of contorted pains, interweaving of contraries and of all contradictions, of the grotesque, of the irrelevant: LIFE.”


Biggie Samuels said...

Not sure it's quite as amazing as I thought on first listening. There was certainly a big "holy shit it's Portishead and it's awesome!!!" factor at first. Still, y'know, it IS Portishead and it IS awesome. You've got to love a band who would do a song like "Magic Doors", which totally sounds like an obvious hit single until they drop in the heavily processed Albert Ayler-style sax skronk solo. Did I mention: awesome?

Anonymous said...

actually i went the other way. ahh.... it's Kid A, then i listened to it again. then i gave it another five consecutive plays...fuck me it's good! it kind of makes you wish tricky had waited ten years between records...

Biggie Samuels said...

"it kind of makes you wish tricky had waited ten years between records..."

Amazingly, I said the EXACT SAME THING to my special lady friend a couple of days ago!