Concerning the Spiritual in Indie Rock

Judy Berman
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In his strange, dazzling 1911 essay “Concerning the Spiritual in Art,” Wassily Kandinsky wrote, “Music has been for some centuries the art which has devoted itself not to the reproduction of natural phenomena but rather to the expression of the artist’s soul.” As he saw it, analyzing earthly minutiae that would soon become irrelevant was less important than pushing against the boundaries of consciousness and expanding the scope of mankind’s experience. “Literature, music and art are the first and most sensitive spheres in which this spiritual revolution makes itself felt,” as artists “turn away from the soulless life of the present towards those substances and ideas which give free scope to the non-material strivings of the soul.” By “spiritual,” Kandinsky meant both the universal and the emotional—accessing both the enormity of the cosmos and the bottomless depths of the human psyche.

Kandinsky’s is an uncompromising standard. But what does it tell us about Animal Collective’s latest single?

Among the immediate forerunners of indie rock’s current metaphysical fixation, Neutral Milk Hotel’s 1998 In the Aeroplane Over the Sea is perhaps the most widely cherished. The album combines Middle Eastern and South Asian devotional music and Christian prayer, sometimes within the same song, to conjure the dream-story of the singer’s mournful, soul-consuming obsession with Anne Frank.

This potentially disastrous conceit somehow yields a mysterious, ruminative, and profoundly affecting album. Hundreds of years of history melt together in a feverish heap of images. Without ever mentioning Frank’s full name, Neutral Milk Hotel’s singer and songwriter, Jeff Mangum, projects onto her ghostly figure a lifetime of anxieties about youth and aging, love and sex, birth and death and rebirth. We see his heroine buried alive only weeks before her liberators would have come, and then reincarnated as a “little boy in Spain playing pianos filled with flames.” Mangum idealizes childhood and its chaste, innocent love affairs. Adult sexuality, with its insidious reminders of mortality, both attracts and repels him; the album bursts at the seams with bodily fluids and putrefying flesh.

Mangum’s lyrics are strong enough that they could work on the page as poetry, but it’s the arrangements that propel the songs heavenward. Violently plucked folk guitar amplifies the singer’s ardor, and the antiquated instruments of rural musicians—banjo, singing saw, flugelhorn—get caught in the swells of miniature symphonies. Tapes, radios, and filters add another dimension, as layers of sound swell and then fade into the distance. Mangum’s vocal cords are the most expressive instruments of all, allowing him to embody the roles of lover, child, and mystic. At moments he sounds messy and frantic, a holy fool receiving revelations in the desert; his voice stretches and quivers as he sings funeral dirges for his lost love. On “King of Carrot Flowers Pts. Two & Three,” Mangum strains to reach a higher register, chanting, “I love you, Jesus Christ”—in nasal tones reminiscent of a Muslim call to prayer.

As if to cement Aeroplane’s mythic impact, the cryptic and fragile Mangum abandoned his band before Neutral Milk Hotel could begin to lead a movement. Today’s cadre of spiritually oriented musicians finds its de facto leadership in Animal Collective, a group that has spent nearly a decade chipping away at the barrier between earth and heaven. The incantatory single “My Girls,” from the band’s newest album, Merriweather Post Pavilion, is a glittering whirlpool of synthetic sound. Harmonic elements merge, divide, and disappear like cells gone wild, only to resurface, transformed, a verse or two later.

Animal Collective is only one of many bands striving for something more resonant than a catchy melody. At their most potent, these artists make big, constantly evolving sounds that redraw the universe around us in deep Kandinsky colors. Harmonies build, choruses climax with eye-dilating intensity, and, if we’re lucky, time and space get disrupted.

In “My Girls,” Animal Collective’s chanted vocals become mantra-like, as the repetition itself becomes more important than the words being uttered. And while repetition is a hallmark of just about all popular music, the particular ways in which these musicians use it recall Zen meditation more than Top 40 choruses. Drone, a technique derived from southwest Asian music in which a single sound remains constant throughout a composition, permeates the album. Although it has been a hallmark of Western experimental music for decades, from La Monte Young’s minimalist classical pieces to the shrieking violin compositions of Burning Star Core’s C. Spencer Yeh, drone is fairly new to indie rock. Dirty Projectors bassist and vocalist Angel Deradoorian, who uses it on her recent solo EP, Mind Raft, has become fascinated with the way drone lends itself to subtle variations on a fixed theme.

Music may also make a grab for our souls by recalling the sounds or harmonic structures of devotional songs, thus reawakening our collective memory of what faith and worship feel like. Arcade Fire’s Neon Bible (2007) was recorded for the most part in a converted church and reverberates with the deep groan of organs. Ezra Buchla of Gowns believes that his band’s brittle harmonies have a similar effect to gospel music. (“If people have souls, that’s the way to activate them,” he says.) The band’s 2007 album, Red State, shaped by layers of drone, amplifier static, and vocals that range from soft and dejected to harried and screaming, doesn’t sound like church-choir material. But the tension between these elements sets up its own kind of call-and-response pattern; the feedback becomes a voracious chorus, always threatening to devour the soloist.

If many of these bands traffic in twenty-first-century head music, another contingent thrives on a polymorphously perverse brand of physical rapture. The title of Ponytail’s most recent album, Ice Cream Spiritual (2008), perfectly captures the band’s sugar-high, wonder-stricken noise-punk. Singer Molly Siegel’s high-pitched shrieks and her bandmates’ wild, experimental take on the classic guitar-bass-drum combination recall nothing more than childhood playtime. For Siegel, childhood and spirituality are about both exploding boundaries between ourselves and the universe and the “ecstasy in losing yourself” that creates. Such moments are explicitly communal for Los Angeles spazz-core outfit the Mae Shi, who build to moments of regressive, holy-rolling exhilaration, complete with contagious hand claps and delirious screams. And Ponytail’s friend and fellow Baltimorean Dan Deacon shapes the sounds of childhood (video games, cartoons) into ebullient electronic music that’s been dubbed “future shock.”

Deacon often begins shows by asking everyone to grab their neighbors’ hands and repeat a nonsensical chant (“Ethan Hawke, Ethan Hawke”) whose only purpose is to transform groups of strangers into a united, if temporary, gathering of friends. Seeking to eliminate the I-thou relationship between musician and fan, he insists on setting up his array of neon-accented keyboards, sound mixers, and microphones in the middle of the audience. Ponytail’s performances conjure the group-wide fervor of Easter Sunday at an evangelical church where both minister and congregation are hyperactive preschoolers. Band and audience members fuse into an army of true believers, baptized in sweat and whinnying in tongues.

Rather than break a performance’s spell, Animal Collective and a handful of like-minded bands seamlessly segue from one song to the next. Their sets often include moments of quiet, but the absence of complete silence means there is no designated time for applause. Instead of clapping politely as the rock stars onstage indulge in inane banter that breaks the spell of a good concert, we cheer when Animal Collective’s music soars to its all-consuming zenith. Rather than detracting from the power of the moment, this nearly involuntary applause intensifies it.

Devotional lyrics can’t redeem a spiritually lifeless track, but, like those that fill In the Aeroplane Over the Sea, they can focus our reveries. Set in the harsh, natural world of the Dakotas in winter, Gowns’ Red State summons its visual power from what Erika Anderson and Buchla call “visions.” Like recurring, waking dreams, these vivid images—of a soldier’s empty basement bedroom, of the American flag hanging in its window—meld together on the album with memories of characters and scenes from Anderson’s rural youth. Rather than elevating us to beatitude, Red State envelops us in its stark desolation. We don’t just empathize with the spiritual hunger that comes from living in the middle of nowhere, with no one around to listen but God; we feel it gnawing at our own stomachs, in Anderson’s and Buchla’s searching voices and static snowdrifts ten feet high.

Gowns’ lyrics brim with Christian imagery, oscillating between an earthly hell—chained-up dogs and teenage rapists who huff gasoline—and distant glimpses of heaven. On “Fargo,” Anderson lists the pharmaceuticals her narrator has been consuming, then makes a sudden, echo-laden break for the transcendent: The sun shines through the window, and the days ahead reach out to eternity. Images of light from above become glimmers of hope trailing the album’s characters. A savior slides down the mountainside. “I’ve seen the sound of angels,” sings Anderson. “I’ve heard the sound, their wings / He said that I was judgment / You know I’m everything.”

A few artists, such as Sufjan Stevens and Danielson’s Daniel Smith (who sometimes performs dressed as a tree bearing the nine fruits of the Holy Spirit), are outspokenly Christian, and often weave their faith into lyrics and song titles. But many others, like ex-Catholic Anderson and lifelong non-believer Buchla, have more complicated relationships to religion. Deradoorian, the Dirty Projectors bassist and vocalist, has an ongoing fascination with religion that began in junior high, when she was “born again” in a youth-group parking lot. A few years later, she rejected fundamentalist Christianity and began practicing a nondenominational form of meditation. Members of the Mae Shi have wildly divergent takes on religion. While some have never believed in God, others are devout Christians. The songs on last year’s HLLLYH (pronounced “hell yeah,” or “hallelujah”) fuse biblical imagery with Dawn of the Dead gore. But because the songwriters’ standpoints clash, the tracks careen from fire and brimstone to deep-seated doubt.

Some bands are even leery of secular spirituality. Yeasayer’s 2007 debut, All Hour Cymbals,traces its influences to a complex, global web of secular and devotional music. Haunting Middle Eastern psychedelia crosses paths with Bollywood soundtracks and African chants in a heady, hypnotic collage that only distantly resembles any one of its forebears. Critics pegged their music as cosmic and even “tribal,” but the band members are avowed skeptics who understand mysticism’s potential to mislead and anesthetize. Chris Keating, who sings and plays keyboards, calls All Hour Cymbals a nonbeliever’s attempt to understand what devotion and awe might feel like. The album, he says, strives to awaken through art the feelings others go to church seeking.

These days, mainstream religion feels largely divorced from metaphysics. The language of good and evil has been co-opted in the service of countless holy wars, and Christian leaders spend more time railing against gay marriage than debating the nature of the human soul. Those of us who can’t buy into these crusades must find other marvels to contemplate. As Keating recognizes, art may help to fill a void left by organized religion: Indie rock’s predominantly young, urban, and irreligious audience kneels to worship at the foot of a stage. Bible study is replaced by ritualistic listening and re-listening to tease out the meaning or simply bask in the bliss of favorite albums.

Perhaps this is why Kandinsky exhorted artists to turn their attentions away from the sordidness of life on earth toward the “nonmaterial” realm. But these musicians are not as detached as he prescribed. In fact, many bring spirituality to bear on the physical realm. The mantra that pervades Animal Collective’s “My Girls” has nothing to do with God or redemption. Noah “Panda Bear” Lennox sings—in words so sincere and conversational they are almost embarrassing—about wanting to protect his wife and daughter: “I don’t mean to seem like I care about material things like a social status / I just want four walls and adobe slats for my girls.” And Gowns uses religious imagery to talk about politics; Anderson goes so far as to say that the carefully titled Red State was a protest album, lamenting everything from rural poverty and drug dependence to South Dakota’s proposed abortion ban.

From the very first listen, In the Aeroplane Over the Sea hooks us with its blaring horn section, singing saw solos, and Mangum’s yowls. But what keeps us up at night, as our minds obsess over snatches of lyrics, is the mournful longing at the album’s core, the way it makes Anne Frank and the horrors that befell her resonate. Kandinsky saw the spiritual and the earthly as opposites, but for indie rock’s spiritual explorers, they are inextricably linked. This music doesn’t suffer from the communion but originates in the space where they meet. 

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