The Burning Hell - Analysis to a prelude #1 (and a weird catharsis). It happens in Florida and Dance Dance Dance
A while ago I posted that I'd attempt an analysis of the lyrics of some of The Burning Hell songs. The motivation for this is simple: I heard them at a club and immediately fell in love; I was about to take voluntary redundancy and they offered vicarious joy; I decided I needed to develop a public profile and write another book (the much mentioned - on here - 1997 book); but I didn't want all my time on that so I hoped a blog would stop me going mad. It has. So far. Along with The Burning Hell (and Buffy, Kimmy Schmidt, Courtney Barnett, Cardinal and a host of other stuff I'll be chatting about over the next few weeks and months (read: until I - hint hint - get a job).
So, The Burning Hell. Soon to release their ninth studio album, I believe, have been on tour almost solidly for 10 years (I would link to my Bowie post as an adjunct to that but it seems too self serving), and when I saw them at the tiny Sheffield venue they utterly transfixed me. Musical ability of the highest order (I am not a musician so that is not something I could technically defend, but from watching gigs for years and years and years, I have rarely seen or heard more accomplished, confident, joyful, well arranged stunning, uproariously beautiful (even when plangent and mournful) musicianship, well... ever.
But even at the gigs, it was the lyrics that really drew me. In part that's because I always enjoy lyrics but as a fan of, for example The National, I clearly can enjoy music where the lyrical dimension is either indecipherable or often simply gibberish. No, the reason these lyrics demanded such notice is because they are such remarkable works of wordsmithery, allied with the great musical structure of which they are a part.
This post will try to assess the songs in their lyrically formal diversity and beauty, and in the musical structure that reciprocally feed each other. I will not be able to do much more than hint in vague, hopeful descriptive gestures at the musicality, I fear. I hope, above all, to offer this in a fashion that does not diminish the songs' splendour in a dull formalism.
The songs chosen are not exactly random but I could have chosen all, or any other combination. The choice is based partially on preference but also because they all highlight different facets of Mathias Kom's astonishing capacity with lyrical poetics.
The first is 'It happens in Florida'. In many ways this seems slightly atypical of the work that will come later and which is so often typified by expanded canvasses of story telling. This is, not a love song, but a song about love. Formally it is incredibly simple: a series of similes are offered, each of which provides an askance description of love. The opening line does not seem to promise much beyond fairly well worn tropes: 'Love, it's like a hurricane' - so far, So Neil Young (not a bad comparison, but hardly breathtakingly original).
"Love, it’s like a hurricane: it happens in Florida, it gets into everything
Love, it’s like a monster truck: it fills up whole stadiums, but it crushes smaller trucks
Love, it’s like a marmoset: it may be small and cute, but sometimes it eats its young
Love, it’s like a trailer park: ugly but functional, the rent is cheap enough
Love, it’s like an interstate: it gets you from place to place, but it’s littered with dead raccoons
Love, it’s like a garbage man: it collects waste and filth, it smells like rotting flesh
Love, it’s like a newborn child: seems interesting when it’s young, gets pedestrian after a while
Love, it’s like a hurricane: it happens in Florida, it destroys everything" (© The Burning Hell)
The next line (or continuation of the first - it's hard to tell and not important, I don't think) begins the shift to the song's awkward, semantically deranged expansion, 'It happens in Florida / it gets into everything' - the general meteorological-explosive generic opening is located, weirdly although disturbingly in the post-Katrina world, in Florida. And its destructive power is diminished into an irritant that does not demolish but merely infuses. From here the similes develop with a curious kind of para-logic. In order, love is: like a monster truck that can fill up whole stadiums but crushes smaller trucks; is like a marmoset that may be small and cute but sometime eats its young; is like a trailer park, ugly but functional where the rent is cheap enough; is like an interstate that gets you from place to place but is littered with dead raccoons; [with the addition of an insistent repeated piano chord] is like a garbage man who collects waste and filth and smells like rotting flesh; is like a new-born child that seems interesting when young but gets pedestrian after a while [the half rhyme of 'child' and 'while' is almost a signature of Kom's song-writing technique], and then [with more volume, more instrumentation and greater menace] we return to love being like a hurricane, it happens in Florida but now it 'destroys everything'.
This is quite stunning. The series runs: weather event; a vehicle; an animal; a living space; a vehicular route; a worker; a baby and another weather event. Each of these things in turn is described like this: a popular spectacle but destroyer of smaller objects; something small but that destroys even smaller objects (its babies); an ugly thing but useful, also affordable; a helpful conduit but that takes you past the death of other cute small things); as a collector of detritus and corruption and that smells like rotting flesh (of marmosets, of dead raccoons?) and then, the winner, the point of the song's journey into urban depredation and decay, on the highways, past the stadiums, over the marmosets and raccoons and death-stinking garbage men: we get to humanity's hope, the future of the species, the sina non qua and, therefore, at this juncture, the song's shift from hopelessness to optimism.
Except, of course not. From a group that sing 'Make poetry not babies' (from 'shut your eyes and open your mouth from the same album) it may come as no surprise (although it did to me) that rather than celebrate and valorise the appearance of the baby, it is - even at its most defenceless, vulnerable and week - little more than a curio; something that 'seems interesting' but when it grows becomes simply 'pedestrian'. I love this word, implying as it does the dull-witted, unadventurous, predictable un-hope that has by now become the song's direction... But, but, but... it perhaps (just perhaps) is the human-scale, perambulatory person, walking not driving, strolling not watching the monster trucks, not driving the highway to the trailer park. Maybe, just maybe the word is there to instil a slither of hope.
Pfft. Of course not, Pateman you dolt. Love, it's like a hurricane; it happens in Florida. It destroys [in super-deep basso-profoundo], Everything.
A fabulously simple structure of anaphoric repetition with something like litotes thrown in for ambience, and we have the perfect anti-love song about love that takes us down the grimy lanes of the urban only to deny us bucolic or new-born redemption. Stunning.
As is the second song I'm looking at from the same album, 'Dance Dance Dance'. This is more in keeping with what I would hesitiantly suggest is the dominant genre of song that Kom writes which is a first-person, story-based narrative. What he is able to do with this bald and bland generic form is quite amazing. A couple of later posts will offer up some of the more spectacular flights of fancy he takes us on, but for now let's focus on this little existential number that begins with a suicidal baby and ends with a jaunty invocation to strut one's stuff in your underwear.
"I was born much too early –
surely, surely prematurely
But I already knew that I wanted more
by the time the placenta hit the floor.
And it wasn’t too much later,
lying inside my incubator
Clenching my tiny newborn fists,
trying to slit my little newborn wrists.
So I went to see the rabbi.
I said ‘rabbi, why why why why why?’
He said ‘I’ve read the Torah and I’ve read the Talmud.
You get born, you meet some people and then you die.’
He said ‘everybody, everybody
has a tiny Pope inside their head!
"Go forth and multiply "–
that’s all the tiny Pope ever says.’
Then he said ‘cause after all is said and done,
from womb to tomb and sperm to worm
There’s nothing much else to do,
so you’ve got to do what you’ve got to do:
Dance, dance, dance, and romance
You just can’t help but dance
Dance, dance, dance, and romance
Take off your pants and dance" (© The Burning Hell)
Unlike, 'It happens in Florida' this song deploys rhyme. But it is the rhyme scheme of a writer who seems to bore easily of rhyme schemes. Initially, it is a simple four line verse (a quatrain) made up of two sets of two lines, each of which rhymes with the other in a scheme that is usually represented:
In other words, a very traditional quatrain made up of two rhyming couplets. As with any song, as opposed to poem, the couplets don't need to have the same metrical pattern as they rely as much on the musical time signature and phrasing as they do on the word's rhythmic qualities. But the lines are fairly even and would work happily as a slightly contrapuntal poem. the second poem works with the same form. And both verses present slightly macabre images: a prescient baby, pondering being as its afterbirth spills, and who then has the self-awareness and fear to seek to end his short short life. It's a kind of surreal Gothic, but this Gothic (if Gothic it is) is Jewish, not Christian.
The baby, wrists unslit, one assumes, seeks advice from the rabbi. The rabbinical chat eschews the couplet quatrain in favour of
with the operative rhymes of 'rabbi' (knowledge, religiosity), 'why' (questioning, uncertainty, 'die' (finality - perhaps), and these wrap around the insights and history enshrined in the Talmud and the Torah (not texts routines invoked in pop songs, but which do appear from time to time in Kom's.) The rabbi's advice is, peculiarly, papal wherein the tiny pope insists on procreative abandon, The rhyme here, as befits such an incongruous matching of traditions and faiths, is odd. It may be that the 'everybody' and 'multiply' are (quarter?) rhymes that at least partially echo the triple rhyme of the previous verse, but they do not sound like it. On the other hand 'head' and says' do sound like half-rhymes as sung. So potentially we have a kind of continuation from the previous verse in which case the sequence is:
Or we have
It does not really matter but it does highlight ow subtle and careful the writing is - in a song that presents inscrutable questions in surreal form and offers answers in a bizarre mish-mash of traditions, the song's structure reflects the uncertainties while also suggesting moments (the rhymes) of order, understanding.
The advice then becomes less theological, it seems, and more pragmatic, materialist. The language is prosaic, 'after all is said and done' but then suddenly poetical both in the synecdoche deployed and the internal rhymes, before a thundering helping of almost tautological banality / freedom where the full rhyme of 'do' with 'do' is both chafing in its obviousness and liberating in its straightforwardness.
The final verse (as with the first song there is no chorus structure but I'll return to that in a later post) is a life-affirming, musically flamboyant celebration of living. The existentially challenged baby accepts the rabbi's seemingly un-rabbinical injunction and soes so with a great poetical swagger. Having shifted from the aabb structure of verse 1 to the abcc structure of the penultimate verse we get a wonderful admixture of the two. The quatrain form, as ever, is kept, but here we have
where a1 is 'dance' both times and a2 is 'romance'. The almost axiomatic cry of pop and rock to dance in order to feel happiness or to find love / sex / romance is here given a whole new philosophical, religious and poetical depth and texture that cannot help but infuse the listener with the desire to de-pant in his office (I speak of myself, but I suggest the feeling may be universal if culturally sensitive) and, as the band recommend elsewhere, shake it like I own it.
Redundancy, however arrived at and whatever the circumstances, does not, I think, necessarily engender optimism, joy and a belief in one's own capacity. This song's journey (in rather more extreme and surreal form!) both mirrors mine over the last few weeks, and created the movement that the mirror reflected. Thank you, The Burning Hell.