Seven Songs About Books

[First Published at OneFourSeven, March 27 2014]

Music and literature have an uncomfortable relationship. The (often indulgently) intellectual culture of, say, New York in the early 70s is something of a relic now and, whilst some artists can still earnestly write a concept album about Hobbits, it’s predominantly a domain for prog bands on acid. Outside of these protected spheres, bringing novels into music too openly is often seen as elitist and affected.

Maybe it doesn’t help that, as a generation, we have a strange attitude towards fiction more broadly. Somewhere between the revelations that Rick Ross was a prison guard and that Daft Punk have faces, our dissatisfaction with an artist assuming a character is apparent. We tend to demand that the musicians we invest in so heavily conform to their own reality. Anything spoken through the hole in a mask might as well be a lie. The songs laid out here, then, are ambitious exceptions.

Just one rule, though: absolutely no tracks that make use of George Orwell’s 1984 make it onto this list. Any song trying to tell you that you are living in a dystopian future will reference that book at some point and very few of those songs are good.

Right. Once upon a time…

The Blood Brothers – The Salesman, Denver Max

The Blood Brothers never quite sat comfortably with their contemporaries. More abrasive and frantic than anything around them in the early 2000s, the energy that they put into their performances often eclipsed Jordan Billie and Johnny Whitney’s deft approach to their lyrics. The Salesman, Denver Max embraces a more quietly insidious tone in parts than the rest of Burn, Piano Island, Burn, opening up the space between the lines of Joyce Carol Oates’ short story Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been? Whitney’s schizophrenic yelps give way to a melody at times, but one so far removed from the guitars behind it that it’s just jarringly incongruous, setting the perfect tone for his move into the mind of the story’s psychotic kidnapper and probing at society’s expectations of women in the process.

Modest Mouse – Bukowski

Considering that their name derives from a line in a Virginia Woolf short story and that Isaac Brock has a tendency to get shitfaced drunk, it’s no surprise that Modest Mouse ended up writing a song about an alcoholic novelist. Good News For People Who Love Bad News is, as closer The Good Times Are Killing Me makes clear, the product of a songwriter only half-playfully drinking himself into a hole. Unlike the half-slurred sing-along of Good TimesBukowski’s lazy cello-led stomp soundtracks a creeping, hungover shame: ‘Every night turns out to be / A little more like Bukowski/ And yeah I know he’s a pretty good read/ But God who’d wanna be such an asshole?’ It’s the realization, however brief, that things are only going to get worse and a subtle hint that, much like the author, Brock might just end up falling down that hole in order to entertain.

Black Star – Thieves in The Night

Toni Morrison’s debut novel The Bluest Eye dealt with its protagonist’s life of imposed shame and degradation so viscerally that it was banned from schools. Whitewashing, though, can only go so far. The refrain of Talib Kweli and Mos Def’s Thieves In The Night is lifted almost word for word from a passage in the novel that Kweli said “struck me as one of the truest critiques of our society.” The track is an attack on a culture that has imposed whiteness as an ideal and middle-class values as a legal requirement and, like the novel that spawned it, Thieves turns a bright light towards society’s illusions.

Mastodon – Blood & Thunder

Leviathan, Mastodon’s breakthrough record, is terrifying. It’s a concept record about Herman Melville’s Moby Dick which, in itself, is a scary idea. But where Melville begins his text with the familiar and conversational line ‘Call me Ishmael,’ Mastodon open their album with a song called Blood and Thunder in which Troy Sanders bellows the words ‘I think that someone is trying to kill me’ like a paranoid lunatic. Brann Dailor’s drumming is a destructive force all of it’s own, never allowing the pace to drop and keeping a concept record about a 900 page novel completely engrossing from it’s terrifying start to it’s watery grave.

Bruce Springsteen – The Ghost of Tom Joad

Bruce Springsteen said that he wrote The Ghost of Tom Joad at a time when he was “looking to fill my music with purpose once again” after years of coasting. To do so, he turned to John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, the same novel that Woody Guthrie had mined forty years before. Springsteen’s ability to give a voice to the disenfranchised has always hinged on his gift as a storyteller. Using Steinbeck’s hero as an elusive spectre in a California on the brink of a social disaster allows him to delve into the first-person as successfully as he did at his best on Nebraska. And, just as he realized on Nebraska, when it’s stripped down to vocals, guitar, and his high, lonesome harmonica, Springsteen’s characters are able speak with a clarity that’s difficult to ignore.

Neutral Milk Hotel – Holland, 1945

Jeff Mangum was so consumed by Anne Frank’s story in The Diary of a Young Girl that he cried for three days. “While I was reading the book,” he said, “she was alive to me.” In The Aeroplane Over the Sea, Neutral Milk Hotel’s second and final studio LP, is an abstract, hazy, dream-sequence of a record that is as consumed by Frank’s image as Mangum was. Holland, 1945, the album’s most musically immediate and celebratory track, makes the record’s most overt references to the diarist, ‘the only girl I ever loved.’ Here, death is a ‘circus wheel’ and a ‘comet’s flame’ embodied by ‘a little boy in Spain playing pianos filled with flames,’ words that Mangum sings with genuine conviction rather than a basic intention to comfort himself with the thought of an afterlife. It’s a perversely hopeful moment, and, stuck in the middle ofAeroplane, it’s basically all he’s got.

Radiohead – Banana Co.

At the time of writing, it’s been two days since Gabriel Garcia Marquez passed away. A writer on the front line of a literary revolution in South America, Marquez documented half a century of almost constant change on his continent in a unique, dreamlike tone. Banana Co., inspired by the author’s 1967 novel One Hundred Years of Solitude, is as difficult to pin down lyrically as any Radiohead track and, in less than two and a half minutes, delving into Marquez’s surreal and often disturbing world isn’t possible. Thom Yorke’s impassioned drawl that ‘we’d really love to believe you,’ though, hints at Marquez’s criticism of the dishonest and disinterested colonial capitalism that he saw around him, a sentiment that the frontman has never been shy of putting forward.

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