Thursday, August 25, 2011

On We Shall All Be Healed

We Shall All Be Healed is an album full of hallucinations, ghosts, and doomed people. While it marks the place where songwriter John Darnielle first started writing nakedly autobiographical songs, the songs here exist in a land where it is impossible to distinguish myth from reality.

On the opener, “Slow West Vultures” the narrator is instantly unapologetic: “We are what we are, get in the goddamn car” and then: “we are sleek and beautiful, we are cursed.” This is followed by the sound of something breaking. That instant is an “oh, fuck”. It’s not unlike smoking meth. You wonder what you’re getting yourself into, and then you realize you don’t care. You’re in it for the ride, whatever may come. The characters are obsessed. Not just with the drug they chase, but subconsciously (or consciously, who knows) they lust for destruction.

We have gotten ahead of ourselves. WSABH is largely the story of people consuming methamphetamines in Southern California. The album was instantly attractive to me, because I spent most of 2001 doing exactly that. There is a bootleg recorded in a 2003 in which JD tells us that “it’s about all my old friends up in Portland, may most of them rest in peace.” That probably tells us more than we need to know. JD switched the location to SoCal, and he probably fudged a few of the details. This is fine. The nature of meth is that shit tends to get really weird really fucking quickly.

So, the album. Let’s get back to that. The second track, “Palmcorder Yajna”, has turned into a bit of a hit. It’s played live quite a bit, and has turned into some kind of horrible sing-a-long. I myself have been guilty more than twice of shouting along to line like “and I dreamt of a house haunted by all you tweakers with your hands out.” The headstones climb up the goddamn hill. It’s a kind of catharsis to be able to shout these words at the world. I have more dead friends than I have time to remember. “Palmcorder Yajna” tells us it’s OK to be OK with this, it’s OK to move along. It’s an important few minutes.

“Linda Blair Was Born Innocent” begins with a simple plucked bass string, before an acoustic guitar kicks in, followed by the lyrics “gentle hum of the old machine”. This is the sound of bodies in motion, headed downtown to buy drugs, and maybe find love. Love is always a key motivator in these songs. Unfortunately it is the second key motivator, only to that which engulfs everything. The song is subtle, and belies a million things, but it comes along so sweetly, and so swiftly that it can easily be missed. This song is a key in a way, however. Motivations are made known here. It’s possibly one of the most important tracks on the record.

Track 4, “Letter From Belgium” seems to be little more than tweakers being tweakers. It’s filled with lines of useless junk that could easily be other junk. Stage makeup, electrical equipment... send us everything just as long as we don’t have to see the sun. The song feels like a bad memory. I remember spending an entire night smoking shit, before going out to shop Garden Grove mall at 6am. These things happen, don’t tell me they don’t.

“The Young Thousands” is next, and I have no idea what that phrase means. This song is scary if you get into the lyrics: “The things that you've got coming will do things that you're afraid to. There is someone waiting out there with a mouthful of surprises.” The song is a continuation of the previous one. Methheads on the march, methheads being methheads. It’s also the first time JD mentions ghosts, and the first time you get an idea of just how haunted these people are.

“Your Belgian Things” has the narrator telling a woman that her possessions are OK. This is pure methhead logic, and it’s brilliant. The song is basically reassurance. JD doesn’t say this, but it’s what he conveys: “your stuff will be Ok, so you’ll be OK.” The he reminds us that: “a tiger’s never going to change his stripes”. He misses this person, he wants them as they are, and he doesn’t care what condition.

The next track, “Mole” has the narrator visiting a friend in handcuffs, and full of tubes in the hospital. Of course, all he wants is information, or why would he have come out? We have no idea what kind of information, however. This is a portrait song, a brief glimpse of what one might be up to when they’re all fucked up on drugs. The hope is there, still “out there in the desert we’ll have no worries” and “I came to see you up in intensive care.” This song haunts like few others on the album. It could be a continuation of the previous song, but it seems more likely that the narrator is speaking of a different person.

Next up is the balls out rocker “Home, Again, Garden Grove.” It’s also the first song that feels like full blown meth psychosis: “plotting triumphant returns to the city, keeping Tec-9's tucked under the floorboards.” Shortly thereafter is a key line: “now we are practical men of the world. We tether our dreams to the turf.” These are characters that have ceased carrying about their hopes and ambitions. Now they only have one goal. That is to do meth, and steal shit.

“All Up the Seething Coast” is probably the simplest song on the album, but it freaks me out the most. It starts as a simple list of daily living, but the spoken word gets scary. A few lines: And nothing you can say or do will stop me. And a thousand dead friends can't stop me” followed by “I go back to places I remember. See what's been going on without me.” Those lines ruin me, for reasons I’ll get to later.

“Quito” has the narrator back to his inflated self-worth. It’s the dream of a king returning: “when I get off the bus down there my children they all are going to greet me at the station.” He’s not unapologetic either. “When I got off the wheel I’m going to stop and make amends to all I’ve wounded.” The things is, he feels as if he has a magic wand, which will right all wrongs, and convince people to submit to his will. It’s meth psychosis, again.

I always think of the song as “Have To Explode, “but “Cotton” is the montage moment. You can see every person mentioned in this album walking around like they’re in the in the SIMS. “This song is for the people who tell their families that they're sorry for things they can't and won't feel sorry for.” If you’ve been there you know exactly what is being said.

I watched tMG play this song in Portland this June and it was especially brutal. I looked up as JD sang the lines “I wanna sing one for the cars that are right now headed silent down the highway” and I could feel the pulse of traffic. He continued: “And it's dark and there is nobody driving.” I remember what it is like to know that nobody is driving. This is the penultimate track on the record, an honesty that can’t be reversed.

The second to last track is “Against Pollution,” and it is pure hallucination: “When I worked down at the liquor store, guy with a shotgun came raging through the place. Muscled his way behind the counter. I shot him in the face.” The second and third verses are more plaintive. It has the feel of an epilogue, the narrator seems to be either looking back on the past or anticipating the future. It gives the feeling that some people do survive this, no matter how much they don’t deserve it.

The last song “Pigs That Ran Straightaway Into The Water, Triumph Of” is basically “Going to Jail.” The narrator is defiant, but relatively resigned to his fate. His ego is there to the end, however: “I come from Chino so all your threats are empty.” So the album ends. Not with a bang but with a whimper, leaving us to either hit play again, or contemplate what we just heard.

The title of the album itself is a prayer. It’s also bullshit. Practically no one who goes through the mire is OK. We survive, yes, but we’re forever haunted. WSABH exists to urge us on to our lives as regular people, while acknowledging our pain. The problem is there are wounds that will never heal. As I write this I’m a month and a half shy of 30. I realize I’m lucky. It gives me hope that the friends I haven’t heard from are OK. Sarah I miss you, Robin you too.

By Jeffrey Whitelaw. Mr. Whitelaw lives, works, and attends school in Seattle, Wa. His previous music writing can be found here and here.He is currently thinking of six ways to prove to you that you're wrong, but can be contacted at

1 comment:

  1. finally a critic who talks about this album in terms of meth.