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.