“When Things Fall Apart,” and Sons of an Illustrious Father in concert

March:  I saw Sons of an Illustrious Father perform.   May:  The video to “When Things Fall Apart” premiered.  June 1:  They’ll release their new album, Deus Sex Machina: Or, Moving Slowly Beyond Nikola Tesla.

But that’s the reverse order of how those things came into being.  Last year, while I was making a practice of listening to their album Revol to help stay (more or less) functional, the musicians themselves had long moved on.  They were finalizing the nine “post-future” songs for Deus Sex Machina.  It reminds me of that childhood feeling of being told that the starlight we see is from eons ago and not the star in its present form, if it still exists at all.

Many of the images coming from the band have that quality of double consciousness about them, an awareness of a different time or mindset, overlaid with the present.

The title of “When Things Fall Apart” is from a collection of talks by Pema Chödrön, subtitled “Heart Advice for Difficult Times.”  Yes, please, I will absolutely take book recs from this band.  Like “U.S.Gay,” “Extraordinary Rendition,” and “E.G.,” this song feels shaken.  What do we do after devastation?  How do we recollect ourselves when dissociation threatens?


Some of my game rules for listening to SOAIF songs remain the same for 2018.  It looks like this is going to be another nine-patch of an album, so I have fingers crossed that each band member will sing lead on three songs apiece; so far, this spring’s three new releases have each featured a different lead.  But the process for this album has changed a bit; in interview with Northern Transmissions, they said that some songs have parts written by different people, sometimes they’ll conceive of parts for each other, or one songwriter will bring “stems” of songs (Josh Aubin’s lovely term) to work on together.  Apparently, the band uses more electronic music on this album, which they’ve said in the past has been a Josh Aubin strength, so I’ll be listening for his influence there.  This is part of the fun of it for me, seeing if I notice how each mind contributed to the music and how those ideas played together.

“When Things Fall Apart” makes a simple impression, but there’s more going on than I heard at first.  The opening is folksy, synthesizer with an 80s lilt to it and some chime-like keyboard flourishes — maybe that’s where Aubin is in this song, since he has sometimes brought lighthearted sound even to songs with moody topics.  Lilah Larson sings gently, with compassion — I think the words are “For whose sake do you forsake yourself?”  That’s a mildly risky element of this game, trying to distinguish this band’s lyrics, because I will certainly be reading into them and I don’t want to hear wrong, and the recent release of their lyric book confirms that these writers do like to elide words into soundalike words.  (No, it wasn’t just you.  The lyrics — and this is one of the greatest joys of this band — were not obvious.  And as it turns out, having them spelled out in print does not demystify them.)

The comfort of the first verse is disrupted by a strident chord that repeats… and repeats… and repeats… and repeats… and repeats.  When is this going to end?  Is it a malfunction?  An alarm?  It’s a bell tolling, or maybe someone’s time is up, because it strikes twelve times in all before giving way to a mournful tempo change.  The words to the chorus are, I think, “Fall apart… into place.  Fall apart, into grace.”  The shift in meaning from a single substitution might be Lilah Larson’s songwriting; she’s done that before.

The second verse returns to contemplation.  This time, when the chord disrupts it again, there’s a familiarity to these shock waves.  It feels less strident, five repetitions rather than 12 before the chorus falls apart.  The song climbs out of this second chorus with — is this what musicians call a bridge? — a progression of rising notes and the line, “All you fear is fear, a fear which disappears as you draw near.”  Is this where Ezra Miller comes into this song?  This image of approaching the source of fear is a reworking of his image, from the Revol song “Armageddon,” of bracing the self for inevitable attack.  The sense of transformation, of cresting the summit, the wordplay and syntax play seem like his thinking, too.

The third time that heavy chord enters the song, we hear it only once, and the song falls instantly into the chorus — we know how to do this now.  It sounds like the words are slightly different this time:  “Fall apart… into space.”  An added reverb effect, if that’s what it’s called (never have I wished so much that I knew how to write about music), and a more relaxed tempo, end the song with a floaty feel.  Like weightlessness and release.

The video to the song has more of a narrative plot than we’ve seen from this band before.  The romance is only part of it, but we have to talk about the romance.  In a few intimate scenes between Lilah Larson and dancer Bobbi Jene Smith, we get what feels like an entire love story before the lyrics even start.  Their expressions driving into the story are among the purest depictions of romantic joy I’ve ever seen.  The cabin in the woods in the deciduous winter, the acoustic guitar, the thunderstruck moment of falling in love, the consummation, the support — this feels like something.  It takes me a while to admit to exactly what, because it’s such a big deal.  It feels like a lesbian fairy tale.  Something known deep in the culture, in the blood, like Disney princesses or being walked down the aisle or riding into the sunset:  a story, an image, that is iconic of collective longings.  There aren’t so many images of these for two women.  The tableau of one woman adoring another playing music, the retreat-like privacy:  yes, that’s one way it would look.

In 1986, every lesbian I knew made pilgrimages to the city to watch Desert Hearts in the theater, as many times as budget would allow.  That movie changed everything; for depictions of women together, by and for women, there was a “before” Desert Hearts and an “after.”  The sex scenes were enough.  They weren’t fade to black; they were included.  The love story in the video for “When Things Fall Apart” is included, too, in a way that reminded me of Desert Hearts.  I haven’t seen this version of a trust fall before:  a falling toward, a falling together.  A mutually agreed-upon act of trust that turns, with grace, into support:  two more instances of this band’s wordplay.

I wanted to write about “Extraordinary Rendition,” “When Things Fall Apart,” and about the March 28 concert I saw, before the June 1 album release pushed those thoughts out of my head.  It takes me a long time to hear a song.  I wasn’t quick enough; the song “E.G.” was released before I got to two of those three things.  The art is coming faster than I can eat it.  Bounty.

So I’d better write about that concert while I still have some memory of it.  (Photo below by PangaeaStarseed.  Used with permission.)


C’Mon Everybody, Brooklyn, March 28, 2018. Many thanks to PangaeaStarseed for permission to use their photo.


I was nervous that day, March 28, traveling toward Brooklyn.  Live performance:  we’d all be experiencing the music together, ideas traveling from some humans to others through sound and movement, with no time lag.  Two music-loving friends came with me:  Chelsea, a writer, who opened her Brooklyn home to me, and Jen, a teacher (coming from the Bronx!  On a school night!), who had been with me last year when I asked Lilah Larson to sign my copy of her solo album, Pentimento.

Pentimento is a good word for those images of time lapse or double consciousness I’ve been noticing from the band.  I work with words rather than visual art, so I’m more familiar with palimpsests.  Larson’s solo album might be the only time I’ve encountered the word pentimento other than reading the book of that title by Lillian Hellman, long ago.

I looked up what Hellman said about pentimento in 1973.

Old paint on a canvas, as it ages, sometimes becomes transparent. When that happens it is possible, in some pictures, to see the original lines: a tree will show through a woman’s dress, a child makes way for a dog, a large boat is no longer on an open sea. That is called pentimento because the painter “repented,” changed his mind. Perhaps it would be as well to say that the old conception, replaced by a later choice, is a way of seeing and then seeing again. That is all I mean about the people in this book. The paint has aged and I wanted to see what was there for me once, what is there for me now.

While I was looking up Lillian Hellman, I found a photo of William Styron, who moved to Brooklyn in his twenties and wrote about it so indelibly in Sophie’s Choice.  And this photo made me understand something about the Janus-faced cover image of Lilah Larson’s Pentimento.



It felt intrusive, seeing such a personal thing through a few clicks on Google; I have the urge to apologize.  On the other hand, it’s a cover image of a solo music album, a piece of lifework.  A finished lifework is not the occasion to pretend that things aren’t personal, that influences don’t shape us, that we haven’t put everything we have into this public offering.

I think it was right to feel both honored and nervous to be present at a live performance.  It is possible, of course, for performers to protect themselves by pretending they don’t care terribly when putting themselves before audiences, but I don’t get the impression that Sons of an Illustrious Father spend much time on that kind of self-deception.

They opened big with “U.S.Gay” and “Extraordinary Rendition” right into “Conquest,” three songs that drive hard and don’t relent.  I didn’t know if I could possibly love “Extraordinary Rendition” as much as my favorite songs from Revol, but seeing it live confirmed it.  Miller and Larson kept eye contact while raising a ruckus together and then harmonized like two cellos, voices rich like the feel of bowstrings reverberating against wire and wood.  There was affection and playfulness throughout the live concert that we can’t get from a recording:  Larson bunting Aubin with her head like a cat or playing peekaboo with Miller over their instruments, Miller reaching out to hold Aubin while singing together.

After that, they took a breath for their à cappella cover of Prince’s “I Would Die 4U,” holding each other tightly.  This was the absolute highlight of the concert and it was not anything like how it looks on recordings.  Live, it was intense, straining, overwhelming — a public performance of the private gratitude the musicians feel to be able to make art together.  Maybe the closest way to describe how it felt is ceremonial prayer.

I can’t tell you much about the new music they performed; it takes me a long time to get to know songs, and I think their songs have taken a leap in ambition, as well.  I got to see Josh Aubin belting out lead, the precision of Lilah Larson’s guitar playing, Ezra Miller pounding the shit out of some drums, shattered bits of drumsticks flying.  I had wanted to see them rotate duties on instruments, a powerful part of their magic:  Put yourself in another’s place.  When they switched instruments, it just looked so matter-of-fact.  Competent.  I couldn’t take it all in.  I wanted to watch Larson on drums so much that I forgot to watch Miller sing and play keyboard; I completely forgot how I’ve always wanted to watch Aubin’s hands on keyboard for “Very Few Dancers,” too busy watching the singing.

It was a good audience to be part of, excited and respectful in the intimate venue.  Whenever Ezra Miller changed places onstage, we could see Rubee moving to keep him covered, just in case.  My friend Chelsea noted how that made her feel safer for everybody.  You’ve probably glimpsed Rubee if you’ve seen photos of Miller from public appearances.  At one point, Rubee accidentally bumped me — I was wedged against a counter and couldn’t get out of the way — and very sweetly offered to buy me a drink by way of apology.  He laughed when I had to take out an earplug to hear what he was saying, and showed me his own ear protection.  These guys are loud.  More than once, I saw them get goofy grins together when they made extra big crashy sounds.

Rubee asked if I had traveled just to see the show, and I got to tell him how the band’s music has been getting me through this administration.  At that, his whole demeanor changed, and for one moment, he exhaled with so much fatigue and pain, and shook his head.  Yeah.

Then there was the moment my wishes came true.  Lilah Larson, with a very gently teasing smile, announced the book of lyrics from We Are Dead and Reborn, One Body, Sons, and Revol, to help out “if you can’t understand what Ezra’s saying.”

“I always think I’m being perfectly clear,” he protested.

“We understand you,” she assured him, to which he replied “thank you” with slightly wounded dignity.

I haven’t sat down and fully communed with this precious artifact yet; it’s almost too concentrated and requires dilution.  Sometimes fans leave messages asking for official lyrics, pleading that they are not native English speakers.  Being a native English speaker won’t necessarily help you here, heh.  Look at this line from “ppm,” for example.  I am certain I would never have deciphered it correctly, and the idiosyncratic capitalization is a bit of meaning that I couldn’t sense from hearing it.  No wonder I couldn’t make it out.

And yea though we’ve walked

On Gaia’s Pristine and Deadly Crown

For all our talk

Our synthetic boots still defile her gown

Printing the lyrics doesn’t lessen their mystery.  They’re as ecstatic and cerebral as I could have wanted, featuring extended political metaphors and melded words that create doubled meanings.  I’ve seen speculation that Miller doesn’t always know what he’s singing; I remember thinking, oh, maybe we don’t, but it looks to me like he always knows.

There was a point when the sight of Ezra Miller drumming was too bright and I had to look away.  It was the combination of the almost-uncontainable energy, the mastery involved in channeling it, the capacity of drumming as a medium to accept every bit of that energy and convey it into art, and the utter lack of filter on the artist’s face.  There was no pretense, no ironic distance.  There was only acknowledgment that this is it, this now is everything; we want to be our best and realest selves and we can only hope that is enough.  And I choked up because that energy looked exactly like how a loved one looked at that age, more than 20 years ago, and I never expected a reminder so vivid and shocking.  He looks different now, my loved one, and I love the current incarnation more, and it amuses me to add, just in case anyone was wondering, that this person is very, very much not a movie star or anything of the sort.  But even when we don’t miss the long-ago versions of our dearest ones, it’s a jolt to the heart when we get the gift of a glimpse.  More often, I think, we get this kind of jolt when a small child goes running by who looks and sounds just like a loved one used to, at that age.  I wasn’t prepared for it to happen here, and with such immediacy.  Time lapse.  Magic.  Pentimento.

The concert ended too soon.  The band re-emerged, looking beautifully spent and without reserves, and Lilah Larson said modestly into the mic, “We’re not used to doing encores.”  They had a brief conference; she muttered, “This will be fine,” which made me laugh; they fulfilled my wish, and probably many others’ wishes, by doing “Very Few Dancers” and “Opposite of Love.”

It was done.  Chelsea steered me to her home, pushing my floating self gently before her, beaming serenely at me and making sure I was hydrated.  She says she’s going to the band’s next Brooklyn show, which makes me happy.  I will go to their Philadelphia show next month, if I can, and even though there will be so much more I’ll want to take in about the new songs, I hope I remember this time to look at Josh Aubin’s hands on the keyboard.

I loved the show, artists.  I thought I’d write you a thank-you note for the sustenance and the fun.

Extraordinary Rendition: Sons of an Illustrious Father

I can’t keep up with Sons of an Illustrious Father right now, and it’s glorious.  They’re blossoming.  In advance of the June 1 release of their album Deus Sex Machina:  or, Moving Slowly Beyond Nikola Tesla, they’ve been giving us some of the new material.  We have today’s new video to “When Things Fall Apart,” the video and lyrics to the single “Extraordinary Rendition,” and most revelatory of all, a lyric book of all their songs from We Are Dead and Reborn, One Body, Sons, and Revol.  

I probably emitted an actual small scream when they announced the lyric book from the stage.  Oh yes, because they’ve been performing live, too, and when I saw their announced show for March 28 in Brooklyn, where I do not live at all, I was seized by fear that I would never ever get another chance to see them and I bought a ticket before thinking through any responsible grown-up thoughts about how I’d bail on my family on a school night to travel there and see for myself what it looks like when these three busy spirits join together to make sound.

Who? you may be asking.  I wrote last year about falling in love with the work of these musicians, Josh Aubin, Lilah Larson, and Ezra Miller, especially on their album Revol.  Their songs were angry and political and spiritual and soothing and heartening, just when I needed it in 2017, and thank goodness, they fiercely advocated for the value of thinking.  Listening to Revol throughout 2017, they kept me company in resisting the fascist message don’t overthink things, to just let sanity be eroded.  Their songs sang of a better message:  It is good to think things.  If the thinking gets too tortuous, then breathe.  Re-set.  Here, would you like a reading list?

I can’t get the broad smile off my face, thinking that.  Yes, please, give me very loud noises from a band whose song and album titles send me to search engines.

So there I was on a Wednesday morning, headed to Brooklyn (“Mommy, just go.  We’ll be fine.  Really”), when not half an hour out of Philadelphia, I got an email from my 9-year-old’s fourth-grade teacher, starting off with, “She’s fine.”  It was something about a bottle of red food coloring that she’d brought from home and how she’d emptied most of it into her mouth and passed the rest to a different fourth grader and how she was sent to the nurse’s office to clean herself up and maybe it would be a good time for us to have a talk at home about “dress code norms.”  

What.  The.  It wasn’t even 10 AM yet.

Husband and I sent off mortified apologies to the teacher.  Please, let this just be a prank.  Or… is she trying to spook out her classmates, implying she’s some sort of vampire or cannibal…?  This is, after all, the child who declared jauntily of herself, “The WEIRD SHIP has ALREADY SAILED.”  This isn’t about the school shootings, is it?  Because the school had just had a series of discussions about school shootings, and a walkout, and please let this not be an expression of anxiety… Augh.  Parenting.

The teacher seemed to think it was normal kiddie silliness.  I continued my trip.  I saw the show, and it deserves words, and I will write about it more later.  I saw them perform “Extraordinary Rendition.”  Here’s the video to that song:

The first time I heard this song, the opening chords assaulted my ears, and I scrambled a bit as a listener, trying to find the melody.  And then, ohhh, there it was, in the chorus:  the low alto of Lilah Larson’s harmony diverging from the narrative line, her voice reassuring and possibly the most beautiful it has been, providing a base of security for Ezra Miller’s character as he observed, reported, stayed present in the disorienting feel of being jolted forcibly into unfamiliar places.  

Extraordinary rendition.  I had to look that up.  It sounds like a compliment, doesn’t it?  Like a high mark or a good review.  It’s not.  At least in one sense of the term, it’s something bloodied and awful, a thing of hell, a skeleton in the closet that’s been dragged into light with the nomination of Gina Haspel to be the head of the CIA.  We don’t want to normalize this brutality, but we don’t want to stop knowing about it, either; we are all implicated.  

I’ve never seen you before/ But what our brains just can’t quite endure/ Is the oh-so-simple fact/ We’re all derived from one source

The video shows us the young white male narrator, portrayed by Miller, being shaken by his sudden arrival in an unexpected place.  This song bears all the hallmarks of an Ezra Miller composition:  the imagistic lyrics, repeated motifs of almost dissonant notes, wordplay based on similar sounds blurring into each other, assonance and internal rhymes.  What do you do when you’re a white male American body, sometimes but not always a person of privilege, young and wary, moving in a world of infinite contexts?  This song has some conclusions, at least for this person, for this moment, and they are striking.  You don’t stop engaging.  You don’t stop feeling.  There is nobody who is not connected.

Do you feel the bones that you can’t own/ Rattle the moans of the loner’s vacant cavities

None of us has very far to go before becoming, in some way, in our selves or in our history, the oppressor or the oppressed.  Someone is always in torment; it might be us.  Don’t stop engaging.  “These are the perils of free agency.”  Breathe.  Build.  

I refuse to summon that false remorse/ To regret or apologize/ Tell lies ’bout how I’ve seen this place before

We’re all accountable, whether we’re close to innocence or never had it.  It’s absolutely guaranteed, no matter where we end up, that our accountability will catch up with us.

A prophet knocks at your door/ To lay your distant cousin’s bones/ On the carpet of your floor

Is this a frightening thought, or a reassuring one?  My paternal grandfather was the only one among his siblings and cousins to make it south of the border during the war; he escaped from the North Korean prison where he was being held for his religion, more than 70 years ago now, and the story is so much worse than that.  What happened to all the others I’ve never met, who look like me?  This is not a thought that keeps me up; it’s distant.  I’ve been living elsewhere.

This video is a leap forward for the band, more ambitious than videos they’ve done before.  The costumes are lush wish fulfillment.  We have seen Ezra Miller in costume for films, but what fun to see Academy Award-winning designer Colleen Atwood transform Josh Aubin into full-on romantic hero mode.  If you’re susceptible to handsome women, brace yourself for the sight of Lilah Larson embodying 1920s lesbian poet chic.  It may hurt a little, but it will be worth it.

I was shaken, too, by the video, by a moment at the end.  The choreographer is listed as Marta Miller.  Is that…?  Yes.  Imagine.  Imagine.  Imagine you have finished raising your wild and gifted child, and he has not been crushed, and you must have done well by him because look, he is vibrant and creating, and he and his friends want you — invite you — to please come make things with them.

I got back home and approached my fourth grader as gently as possible, like trying not to startle a wild animal, stripping my voice and manner of the slightest trace of judgment, almost not breathing.  I asked about the red food coloring.

“Oh, that,” she said, chagrined.  “It was something I saw on YouTube, and I understand it was poor judgment and it wasn’t appropriate for school, and I won’t be doing that again.  And I didn’t drink half the bottle; it was already almost empty when I brought it to school.  It was just a few drops.  I spat it partly into the sink, and partly into a tissue.  I brought the shirt home in a bag.  I’m sorry.  We’ll have to put it in the laundry.”

[This is the point in the comic strip where the large mommy and the small child look at each other, and the child is done speaking, and the mommy just looks at the child and doesn’t say anything for a whole panel.]

It doesn’t seem to have had anything to do with the school shootings.  It seems like it was just a prank.  I mean, with a touch of drama, yes.  I told her that such pranks are best confined to Halloween or April Fools’ Day.  She went upstairs and did her homework.

I love the song “Extraordinary Rendition,” with its many changes and highlights, and the melody seems strong and legible to me now.  I’m not done getting to know it yet, and now, today, we have the new “When Things Fall Apart” video, the most narrative video we’ve seen from this band so far, another leap forward.  I am reading Pema Chodron and thinking about the damage that’s changed us since this presidency began.  I still want to write about the concert I saw, and probably, too, about this new video and then about the album coming June 1.  I hope and expect to see this band play again, and it will be in my city this time, and school will be out for the summer, and it will be okay for my kid to dye herself red.