In 1876, Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky wrote Marche Slave for a concert benefiting soldiers wounded in the war between Turkey and Serbia, which implicitly served as a jab at the Russian Tsar for not doing more to help appease the turmoil in Eastern Europe. In 1937, Marc Blitzstein wrote the score of The Cradle Will Rock in an attempt to shed light on the corporate greed and political corruption littering the US at that time. In 1971, Leonard Cohen released his acclaimed record, Songs of Love and Hate, where Cohen directly criticizes modern American culture and government during the back end of the Civil Rights Movement. Music often serves as a reflection of contemporary cultural and political turmoils, or even triumphs, modern music being no exception to this rule. Particularly in the modern hip-hop/rap scene, lyrics are explicitly provocative and aim to shed light on issues that might otherwise remain unaddressed. But how did the rap scene’s indie/alternative contemporaries address the same issues in 2017?
It would be unfair to lump every “alternative” musician together, as no two artists have the same songwriting method. Josh Tillman, a.k.a. Father John Misty, Adam Granduciel of The War On Drugs, and Robin Pecknold of Fleet Foxes are three of the genre’s prominent songwriters, and all released records in 2017 that can be viewed as personal opines on current affairs. While all are mellifluous, each artist has their own distinguished style, so it follows that their records are equally distinct from one another both in their musical composition and lyrical structures. However, thematically, each artist approaches the confrontation of modernity introspectively. Rather than saying, “this is how it is and this is what you should do about it,” they opt for the more subtle, “this is how I see it, let me show you how I feel about it.” How they show you is the key distinction, and may be your reason for a certain preference between the three artists.
It didn’t take long for Josh Tillman to adopt the identity of Father John Misty after parting ways with Fleet Foxes. He quickly established himself as one of the more controversial figures in the indie scene. Is he the king of all hipsters? Or is he satirizing hipster culture? If he’s making fun of hipsters, is he beginning a new wave of ironic hipster-ism to rule all hipsters? No one really knows what his deal is, but it’s clear that he has a lot to say and has built a platform to be heard from.
There is nothing shy about Pure Comedy. Tillman either directly objects to or satirizes a number of different qualities that he finds to be repulsive about modern society. No topic is safe from Tillman’s debatably condescending and assuredly poignant tone. But how is he able to say so much in the span of time where many musicians say almost nothing?
Part of the answer lies in the artist’s chosen compositional style. FJM opts to employ a sense of complexity in his lyrical structure rather than in his instrumental use. That’s not to say that Pure Comedy is lacking in catchy melodies or clever tempo constructs. However, when compared to 2017 releases the likes of Crack-Up or A Deeper Understanding, it certainly feels minimalistic. This bare-bones songwriting method is exactly what provides Tillman the opportunity to draw focus to his words. His lyrical content is controversial and bluntly accusational, adding to the pomposity of his adopted persona. However, there is no denying the beautifully crafted poetics that can be found in each track of Pure Comedy.
While released under the moniker of Father John Misty, Pure Comedy feels too personal to be that of his fictional pseudonym. From the first track, listeners are introduced to the world as Tillman sees it. He points out the ironies of human biology, criticizes religion, and sullies the use of modern technology all in the first fifteen minutes of the record. It’s not until the midway point, “Leaving LA,” that Tillman offers a bit of vulnerability. He points the finger back to himself, confessing that alienating himself with an unattainable facade of all-knowing superiority only led to depression and loneliness. The liner notes of the closing track call to circulate back to the beginning, where Tillman states we’re “Just random matter floating in the dark/I hate to say it, but each other’s all we got,” thereby humbling himself as both a man and a musician, while also confirming the thesis of his concept album.
A Deeper Understanding
Adam Granduciel is a mysterious man. In direct contrast to FJM, he isn’t the type to say precisely what’s on his mind. He says it nonetheless, just not always with his words. Instead, Granduciel paints you a picture of his thoughts, drawing the lines with lyrics and coloring them in with instrumentation.
Despite his soft-spoken manner, Granduciel has always been one to voice his own insecurities, often writing about his anxiety and how he deals with frequent bouts of depression. A Deeper Understanding is no different from his previous records in that respect, though he goes a step further to implicitly state some of the causes of those feelings. It seems that Granduciel is on a constant and unavailing search for meaning in the chaotic modern world, singing “I’ve been pulling on the wire, but it just won’t break/I’ve been turning up the dial, but I hear no sound/I resist what I cannot change/But I wanna find what can’t be found.” While his words in “Pain” are plaintive, they are laid within a contradicting wave of sound that suggests a twinge of hope for the singer/songwriter.
But where can one find meaning, or a deeper understanding of the world? Or rather, where does one find solace in a time of ever-growing disarray? The questions raised in A Deeper Understanding are cryptic and multifaceted, but the answers are more simplistic. At the end of the day, Granduciel finds meaning and purpose in his relationships. A guy who appears to be so well off on his own, and who is known for isolating himself for great lengths of time to write his music is no more immune to loneliness than the rest of us. He understands that it’s the people we love and the relationships we choose to keep that are most precious to us.
The War On Drugs is known for lengthy instrumental sections and ripping guitar solos. The lyrics have always been something of an undercurrent, and that is exactly how Granduciel wants them to be. A Deeper Understanding is not a statement in the way that Pure Comedy exemplifies. Rather, it’s a feeling that is no less profound and often easier to connect to.
Robin Pecknold is a contrarian, taking pleasure in doing exactly the opposite of what is expected of him. So when he called for an indefinite hiatus and enrolled as a student at Columbia University after touring Fleet Foxes’ critically acclaimed Helplessness Blues, was it really all that surprising? In the six years he spent in the prestigious and exclusive world of New York academia, Pecknold assisted in writing the score for an off-broadway production, toured with Joanna Newsom briefly, studied English Literature, and wrote songs for his latest record, Crack-Up.
On the surface, Pecknold’s inspiration is easy to find. He describes looking down at busy city streets from his apartment window, all over complex arrangements that alternate between beautifully cacophonous instrumentation and minimalistic electric guitar accompanied by Pecknold’s rarely used, whispering low register. This is all seemingly used to symbolize his going between the bustling streets of New York to his quiet studio. But can it also be scene as a metaphor for his perception of the world’s tumultuous state of affairs?
In the liner notes of the delightfully composed “If You Need To, Keep Time On Me,” Pecknold reveals that he wrote the track on January 20th, 2017, which happens to be the day of President Trump’s inauguration. While he doesn’t mention the president explicitly, a lot can be derived from Pecknold’s enigmatic lyricism. “How could it all fall in one day?/Were we too sure of the sun?” and “Wide oceans roar/A frightened fool stokes heatless fire” are just two couplets that possibly take indirect jabs at the election of our current president.
While the world’s disorder seemed to stack upon itself, Pecknold faced it on his own. A mearcstapa is one who wanders alone along the edges of the world, and the word is most notably used in Beowulf to describe the antagonist, Grendel. “Mearcstapa” from Crack-Up serves as Pecknold’s personal critique of his self-destructive behaviors. The Helplessness Blues tour ended and Pecknold quickly fled to New York, isolating himself in an effort to find meaning in his own life and broaden his own horizons as a student. Eventually, Pecknold must have come to the conclusion that attempting to find meaning or happiness by oneself is a “fool’s errand,” especially in this day and age. “The eyes of the sea/So easy to meet/Mearcstapa, deaf and blind like me/But the foam doesn’t sing/The phone doesn’t ring/So what will you find/Mearcstapa of mine?” That realization is likely what led to the rebirth of Fleet Foxes and his relationship with his childhood best friend and bandmate, Skyler Skjelset.
Over the years, these three artists have constructed a presence they are now using to speak their minds. Whether it’s a soapbox or a platform, that’s another question. What is certain is that people are listening, and it’s a testament to music itself that they are able to voice their thoughts and opinions using methods that are so dissimilar. While their techniques certainly differ, their message is unified in saying, “yes, the world is crazy, but we still have each other, so hold on tight.”