Monday, June 25, 2012

On the Mountain Goats + Anonymous 4’s Transcendental Youth, 03-29-2012: Where We’ve Been

“Of man’s first disobedience, and the fruit
Of that forbidden tree, whose mortal taste
Brought death into the world, and all our woe,
With loss of Eden, till one greater man
Restore us, and regain the blissful seat, Sing Heav’nly Muse”

-John Milton, Paradise Lost, Book I

From the start, it was clear that this would not be a typical rock show, or even a typical indie rock show. Of course, the audience was seated, and the theater was too upscale to really be a rock venue. But the fact that this would be different was really cemented when the first act walked onstage.

Four dignified women, who appeared to be in their fifties, and were dressed in dark clothing, quietly lined up around a microphone. There was the slightest sound of one of them singing a note to ensure that they were in tune, and then they began to sing.

These women (Ruth Cunningham, Marsha Genensky, Susan Hellaur, and Jacqueline Horner-Kwiatek) are Anonymous 4, named for an unknown author of a medieval treatise on music. It’s a fitting name, not only because the women sing medieval and renaissance music, much of it drawn from Latin masses, but also because these women seem to lose any individual identity when they sing. They sing not as four, separate women, but are somehow joined in one collective voice that sings in impossible polyphony.

They began with “Lection: Apocalypse 21:1-5,” which draws its text from the Apocalypse of Saint John the Apostle. The text speaks of the second coming, looking hopefully to “a new heaven and a new earth.” It’s a hope for some miraculous salvation to come, to replace the current existence. In an evening of songs centered around mental illness, beginning with this yearning was a powerful and apt decision.

Later in Anonymous 4’s performance came what was, for me, their most moving number. Entitled “The Scientist,” the song consists of a single line, repeated in chant-like form, taken (perhaps apocryphally) from Galileo. The story goes that Galileo, having just been excommunicated from the church for claiming that the Earth revolves around the Sun, murmured his rebuttal: “Eppur si muove!” (And yet it moves!) The tenor of this almost begrudging protest is crucial to its power, beyond the simple beauty of the song’s melodies and harmonies. It speaks of a man who knows that he is right in his convictions, but for the foreseeable future, is resigned to the judgment that has been handed down to him by a vastly more powerful entity.

“The weird sisters hand in hand,
Posters of the sea and land,
Thus do go about, about,
Thrice to thine, and thrice to mine,
And thrice again to make up nine.
Peace! The charm’s wound up.”

-William Shakespeare, Macbeth, I.3.30-5

Following Anonymous 4’s enrapturing performance, there was a brief intermission, and when the audience returned, John Darnielle proceeded onto the stage as the Mountain Goats. He began by commenting on Anonymous 4’s performance, saying, “Did I tell you they were awesome? They’re so awesome.” He’s right—their performance inspired a truly reverential awe in the audience, which also set the tenor for Darnielle’s own performance.

The first nine songs of the evening’s seventeen were performed solo by Darnielle, with Owen Pallett joining him on violin for “1 John 4:16.” Partially because of the songs Darnielle chose for the evening, but also because of the precedent set by Anonymous 4, Darnielle’s performance seemed subdued to me—almost suspiciously so, as if he were hiding the bulk of his forces away, to lie in wait for a coming ambush.

The material in the songs is as visceral as ever, but Darnielle’s playing style felt more controlled than usual, save for the one line in “Slow West Vultures”—“Get in the God-damned car!”—where he allowed himself to yell. But by following Anonymous 4 with only one man singing, most of the set’s first half sounded very quiet. This only further served to illustrate the power of the group’s performance, which called to mind the witches in Macbeth—their presence was eerie; they were notable not for their malevolence but for their power.

The first song Darnielle performed, “Tribe of the Horned Heart,” begins with the line “You knew that they were out there by the signs they left behind,” which feels like a thought that could occur to any of Darnielle’s characters. These characters seem like they are striking out toward reality from a dark room and not hitting anything, but still certain that there must be something there.

Similarly, the second song, “Bride,” is notable for its chorus: “We belong dead.” But I don’t believe the characters in this song, Frankenstein’s monster and his wife. After all, in Mary Shelley’s book, Frankenstein’s monster resists death at every turn, violently if he has to, and instead of dying flees society altogether. This is a more believable fate for Darnielle’s characters: they may not belong dead, but they certainly don’t belong here.

And yet despite the apparent inability of most of these characters to connect meaningfully to other people, there was a palpable connection between Darnielle and the audience, which longtime Mountain Goats fans will note has always been one of the band’s appeals. At one point, while Darnielle was playing “Your Belgian Things,” I realized that the low, whispering murmur I heard in the room was the audience quietly singing, with utter fervor. This audience was never as many indie audiences are pilloried for being—postured, jaded, and aloof. This audience was present and wanted, more than anything, to connect.

After concluding with a relatively upbeat performance of “Enoch 18:14,” Darnielle approached the microphone with clear excitement on his face. He welcomed Anonymous 4 back onto the stage, and the most memorable aspect of the evening began.

“I returned, and saw that the garden
Had not moved from me but that some illness
Of the garden carried it away
From me regardless.”

-Cyrus Console, The Odicy

The collaborative performance between the Mountain Goats and Anonymous 4 was good, I’ll say by way of understatement, and Owen Pallett did a heroic job of arranging the pieces for the group. Without trying to be exceptionalist, or to hold my presence at this concert over others, it may be important to note that I later listened to NPR’s stream of the concert, and while it captured the performances well, it utterly failed to record the breathless awe of the room. And, with some fleeting shame, I’ll also admit to thinking that having heard these songs performed in this way, I’m now wary of hearing them on the eventual record, knowing that Anonymous 4 is not a part of those versions.

One of the reasons that this concert was so good is that so many of its moments surprised me, in the best way, even if the surprise filled me with dread. Halfway through “In Memory of Satan,” the piano key changes and descends, and the feeling of loss that pervades the song suddenly becomes all-encompassing. For me, the biggest surprise of all was in “Night Light,” when Darnielle ended the first verse by singing: “Jenny calls from Montana, she’s only passing through / Probably never see her again in this life I guess, not sure what I’m going to do.” I was shocked to recognize Jenny now on some unspecified but clearly foreboding pilgrimage.

Jenny, the titular character of a song from All Hail West Texas, is one of the more recognizable and beloved Mountain Goats characters. She’s also one of the few with a distinct name. Finding her again here brought the realization that these characters, like real people, have continued living outside of the moments in which we’re focused on them.

I felt that something had happened to this character with whom I had spent a lot of time, and I felt the mixture of shame and fear that comes with having missed it. That, in turn, made me wonder about other characters I knew from Darnielle’s songs. Where are Jeff and Cyrus now? What happened to the Alpha husband after his wife finally left him? Or to the Alpha wife? We can never be sure exactly what’s been lost; we only know that something was.

Of course, there were pleasant surprises to the evening as well, and I’ll say with all sincerity that perhaps the most important of these was this: that the concert was good. Choral groups like Anonymous 4 are at the high end—the very high end—of the a cappella spectrum. The other end is well known, and tends to be more vocal in society: TV series like Fox’s Glee show how easy it is for a cappella renditions of songs to fall into the realm of irritating kitsch, replete with garish performances that are frequently overly sentimentalized. Certainly, in this concert, there was a healthy dose of sentimentality. But the performance was never over-the-top, and never made a misstep. It is admirable that a one-off (or two-off; the performance also took place in London on April 2) show centered around an unconventional structure could be presented with such grace.

In fact, one of the more notable aspects of the performance for me was the unifying effect it had on the audience. We were all rapt in a Dionysian trance, swept up into the experience of the moment. When the songs ended, I remember a palpable gap, a genuine tension, in the moments before the applause began. It was as if we had forgotten what to do, or how to be people in society. But even after we had remembered, and began to applaud, we still felt a degree of lingering uncertainty that would take a while to fully leave behind.

By Carl Schlachte. Mr. Schlachte is a teacher and a poet living in New York City.