Catharsis is a straightforward process: a prolonged bodily spasm existing in order to flush out what is within, with the end result that what was once within becomes outwith. Once in is out, into the tight space where once there was an in floods the nourishing backwash that is the warm, spacious feeling of cathartic release; due to the unfortunate sensory limitations of the human body, the movement of that nourishing backwash then becomes the feeling of release itself. As that movement is a secondary one, it then follows that its corresponding primary does not have to be the direct result of relieving tension explicitly relating to that original, now-forgotten, now-eliminated cathartically identified problem. That nourishing backwash can be the relief of alleviating tension through some other activity, something entirely unrelated but nonetheless all-consuming, which by connecting with the successful scratching of an unconnected itch purges the originally offending object from memory. What’s projected is out, what’s reflected is in. The climax is resolution, the release is release, emptiness fulfills, and what has gone immediately before becomes less important than what has gone a considerable time earlier than before: the rejuvenated present has no time for the dilapidated past. The distinction between actual and inactual catharsitations is never more uncertain than in a cathartic pop song, where the song’s referential role to its content can be practically non-existent, meaning the difference between a genuine primary release or a distant secondary release-by-proxy becomes even more practically non-existent. Such is the basis for the many tedious ways in which existentialism in pop music becomes as much a struggle between covert and overt as between tension and release.
The Antlers’ Hospice was part of a decade-or-so-long gentleperson’s club of softly stylized North American indierock catharsis, originally signed over into collective reality by J. Mangum of Shoulderfork AG, which took as its foundation the tenet that as far as vocal pop catharsis was concerned, there should be a blind eye turned to that difficult bind between true and false. If you want to construct an elaborate concept album around wet dreams about famous historical figures to alleviate the inner tension created by your partner’s serious snoring problem, the gap between the two should not be allowed to persist as a discontinuity: do it, if it feels good (do it!)! Or, as the great Mangum himself wrote in his widely distributed pamphlet “Versuch einer modernen Lösung dem Hinterhaus”: if you will it dude, it is no dream. Such a philosophy could be generously described as ensuring the longevity of the fragile human consciousness by entrusting its expansion to a community support structure of post-ironic goodwill. There was nevertheless the feeling (!) that Hospice was a belated postcard from a movement in its twilight, or at least a movement which was beginning to see regression as an increasingly inevitable necessity for progression: Hospice made itself “hundreds and thousands of hospital beds” and then made a sizeable deal about feeling the urge to lie in them without being told to do so, but dominated by the impression that that sizeable deal was considerably older than the plight it was supposedly created for. However, by acting as a jaded midpoint between Funeral and the other, much better, big cathartic North American indierock record from 2004, Bows & Arrows, Hospice glistened the theatricality of the former with the unwashed stench of the latter, meaning that it managed to be grandiose yet grounded, allowing any of the album’s tracks to sit as easily beside Kanye’s nomadically spirited “Roses” as beside anything contained in fucking Funeral. But despite its welcome challenge of difficult difficulty, there was also the sense that this slowing decade or so of work that Hospice was the twilight to now looked like a process of turning the whole process of catharsis inside out, more about adopting than expelling, to make catharsis as easy as pulling off a stranger’s plaster. Hospice still worked well, largely because it seemed reluctant to load itself with the burden of artificial importance, unlike, say, Arcade Fire, all of whose songs were recorded and performed through faces plastered from chin to hairline in garish neon cry-faster stripes. On Hospice, those hospital beds were cast off somewhat painfully, but quickly, realistically, actually. In contrast, you can be sure Win Butler would have charged out there in the longest strides his tendons could muster, his mind set on getting to every last one of those hospital beds, with the intention of personally shaking and wailing every patient out of their modernity-induced irreverie. Wake up, wake up: your body is a cage!
Whatever their wavering differences in mise-en-oeuvre with Teh Fire, after its release (!) Hospice‘s cathartological project seemed a success, in that it so publically existing made someone somewhere’s mission look publically fulfilled. This sense of slowly shrugging completion may be the reason its successor Burst Apart steps lightly but conclusively, as if its task were over before it began and it now has nothing else to do but dance around the dying embers. This numb afterglow reflects itself in swaying waves of disembodied lighters and sets itself as Burst Apart‘s tone onwards from opener “I Don’t Want Love”, the suppressed horror of being jumped by a gang of delinquent U2 songs (they chanted “you’re stuck in a moment …and you can’t get out of it…” as they walked away leaving you battered in the gutter). A horror, to be sure, but one internalized deep enough to instill a curious warmth, and one dull enough to be distant: what’s done seems done, and those U2 songs surely would have been model citizens had they been given the right cathartic opportunities in life, and not had to resort to the ever-so-cheap catharsis of random violence. What’s getting you down, the song heavily implies you ask, so it can look away disconsolately in silent response. Scratching like a chicken trapped in the back of your mind, “Rolled Together” is the suppressed trauma of an uncompleted loss of virginity to Moon Safari: appendage turned flaccid by Sexy Boy, so you guys had to humbly spoon your way through fifty minutes of thank-you-for-choosing-Air-France bullshit. Even more worryingly, the nauseating “Parantheses” is the never-fulfilled collected promises of a thousand greyscale cologne advertisements, which lures whatever’s left of Project Catharsantlers’ obliquely homely charms into the grim but nearby world of aspirational consumerism, the absolute lowest form of catharsis apart from masturbation. “Parantheses” is so depressingly stylized that it makes the few moments of genuine frailty on the rest of the record look at worst disingenuous and at best like whimsical recollections of painlessly forgotten meaning. Everything is done here, everything has burst apart, the milk has been spilt, the last worm to leave the opened can turned out the lights, and the process looks deceptive in retrospect, as if the aroused anticipation of cathartic consummation was just an anticipation of post-coital boredom, feelings which now make the act itself seem disappointingly transitory. What that leaves us with now, in our cathartic project, is the kind of benign emergency of restlessness that can be obliterated simply by looking back to prove everything’s finished, and which provokes the kind of idle fidgeting that stops senses of completion from ever wearing out their individual welcomes. This is muzak stripped of the only purpose it was ever good for.
It’s mood, and not emotion, that sells cologne and similar products (its elder sibling emotion considering such a task degrading) and whatever it is that fogs up your spectacles with dominating smoky drizzle to act as Burst Apart’s sales pitch, it’s certainly closer aligned with mood than emotion; there’s no smoke without fire, unless of course there’s a smoke machine, and Burst Apart’s smoke machine sweats many buckets of cathartic/contracathartic moisture over its running time, each of which mingles with the atmosphere so thoroughly that it becomes hard to tell what’s going on through your blocked nose, acid stomach and watering eyes. Frequently Burst Apart can’t even manage to put its sniffs and cat-coughs into casually worded mumbles: it’s an exaggeration to say that every single song on this album includes a stretch of sub-lingual oooh-oooh-oohs, but it’s not a particularly big one. The lukewarm ravages of “Corsicana” and “Hounds” try to look fondly upon at a moment of possibly abandoned possible catharsis, possibly experienced by someone else, possibly hidden behind some sort of formal screen, like it’s just accidentally wandered into the empty observation area of an empty operating room, while “No Widows” tries to come to terms with the trauma of not finding anything palatable to attach the label of trauma to, not even in memory, with the discomfort of feeling your legs buckle slightly followed by the release of your body resigning into a comfortable chair. For all its U2-isms, Burst Apart shys away from stadium-filling cathartic megalomania, but stuck between the two poles of microemotion and macroemotion it’s stuck spewing out jittery lullabies for the overcaffeinated. It never for one second feels enthusiastic about what it’s doing, this whole cheap situation seemingly been forced upon it by the aforementioned lamented defloration, yet it’s not reluctant either; it’s helplessly idle and almost perversely habitual. Peter Silberman’s vocals swung from extreme to extreme so drastically on Hospice that he sounded like entirely different people from one track to the next, but for more or less the entirety of Burst Apart he sings like a grandmother weeding the garden, albeit one in an ill-advised feather boa and leather slacks combo. ”French Exit” is a gloom-streaked train-window gaze which seems caught between having lost the will to live and dealing with having lost the will to live, but its retrospective look back at whatever battle it’s just fought reveals no armies and no battle, suggesting that its wafer-thin resilience is just resilience to the pain of having no pain to be markedly resilient against, a boredom articulated around the half-hearted come on in its half-hearted “come on”. It’s not quite uncaring, but it’s certainly uncaring enough to be uncaring as to whether or not it sounds more uncaring than it actually is. Neither is Burst Apart a good listener: such are the strange ways of pop catharsis that Hospice seemed empathetic even though it was only ever concerned with its own primal artifices of expression, working under pop music’s irrational and stupid but implacable and essential tenet that if a song is that receptive to itself, then surely it’s similarly receptive to others (COME CLOSER). This little law, convenient as it seems, only works if the music in question happens to be powerful enough to exclude the possibility of its central plight’s position as primary concern of the passing moment being threatened. The sweepingly unpowerful Burst Apart is as open as a belching hippo, but only to the lazy collective devotion of the rallied arena, and so seems many times more self-centered than its predecessor. At its most tenuous this just results in the album sounding fucking stupid: imagine how much better the clangingly awkward “Every Night My Teeth Are Falling Out” would be sung by blustering alphadouche Jim Morrison (“pain is something you carry, like a radio”) to fully appreciate how off-the-mark Silberman’s heavy-lidded yawn of a vocal performance is in imagined comparison, and how the effect is to imbue the risky metaphor of the title and chorus with a deflatingly absurd literality: the shame that causes the soul to retreat so complicatedly within its surrounding body comes full circle, and the shame of what it leads to demands the soul retreats anew, and so on and so forth in the shameful merry-go-around of laissez-faire existentialism disseminated through fucking art.
After all that noise, it’s perhaps unsurprising that closer “Putting The Dog To Sleep” can’t really be bothered to sleep in the epic bed it’s made itself. It feels like an Arcade Fire parody from the moment it begins to somewhat amusingly elaborate its title, but it steadfastly refuses to illuminate that massive light rig it’s ordered, happy to settle for the same slightly bored, slightly illuminated phone-in-the-air sway as the rest of the record. The only explanation I can see for making a bullet with Win Butler’s name on it then just handing it to him in a velvet box is if you don’t have a gun, which would be a reasonable description of Burst Apart‘s safely self-directed impotence. This record, no doubt in cahoots with the past tense in its title, doesn’t seem to exist as much as it seems to imply some sort of previous existence which was more memorable than the present, though not memorable in enough detail to permit its gruesome reanimation. Perhaps life burst apart as you snoozed, and you woke up to the realization that you’d slept over into the afterlife, at which point you realize you’ve wasted both your space and your time lamenting uncartharsigated catharsicles. It’s harder to rely on the trust in a remote presence of an emotion, than it is to rely on its burning immediacy. This doesn’t rule out success, given that some of the movement’s most moving movements came out of such post-cathartic tragic epilogues being worked like a motherfucker by Grandaddy. But Burst Apart doesn’t feel like it’s remembering something so much as remembering something else in lieu of something it can’t remember, and while it’s more ponderous than it has time for, it never shows any real desire to be constructively thoughtful on the subject, meaning the record seems like a hastily improvised attempt to conceal and contain its hollow core inside its thin but solid shell, and so is something directly inhibiting release rather than encouraging it, and makes a mockery of the great Mangum’s intentions by superimposing the the sturm/drang dichotomy directly onto the richtig/falsch.
Arcade Fire don’t seem to be leaving this review any time soon so I must make use of them, in the hope that I will be able to eventually blame my tools: on their lamentable (!) last album, Tha Mourntreal Funeral Cru moved out to some titular suburbs, because they had decided after consulting with family, friends and Jonathan Franzen that the suburbs were where meaningful things attained the meaning that gave them that name, and where newly catharthabited cathartists were dazedly milling around on sidewalks and in rain gardens, waiting restlessly upon catharsigitimacy. Well, if emotion were a city Burst Apart would be the leafy suburbs, the neatly strewn suburbs of emotion itself, where the louder parts of the quiet life are memories of urban noise (the hockey game, the Christopher Nolan movie, the juvenile violence gang, etc), where people gaze at what they remember being low peaks from what they think are now high troughs, and where leaves would be everywhere were it not for everyone being able to afford a blower. Spend a lazy Sunday in a the suburbs of emotion, sitting around waiting for something to be cathartic about, hoping that the ongoing angst of having no catharsis to work with will eventually accumulate into a something, an anything which can give you an eventual something to exercise your hard-earned right to contemporary catharsis on, the one that’s so seductively advertised wherever your pained gaze leads you. The end of catharsis promises rebirth just as downturn promises recovery: keep saying that to yourself until you fall asleep.