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.)
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.