Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Middle Cyclone, Epic

"My love," apostrophize the first lyrics of Middle Cyclone on the first song, "This Tornado Loves You," but within 20 seconds, the persona relates having arrived at the speed of sound and left her victims "motherless, fatherless, their souls dangling from inside-out of their mouths." So much for the preliminaries, and soon she reports having cut a 65-mile-wide swath through countryside and bed sheets. Sounding weary and unsure of whether she should even bother to explain what has brought her to this point, she closes the song with "what will make you believe me?" We are in medias res, and the epic is started.

The songs that follow -- or maybe I should say books -- seem to stand outside or above psychology. Like the Iliad or Odyssey or the Aeneid, it's hard to say if Middle Cyclone denies psychology, philosophy, history, and other manifestations of the higher mind, or so fully embodies them as to make them newly transparent. As a line in the title song puts it: "It was so clear to me / that it was almost invisible."

The themes are utterly elemental: love, hate, lust, longing, rage, violence, chaos, fate, birth, death, time, the seasons. It draws the boundary between the human and the animal, erases it, and re-draws it repeatedly. It treads back and forth over other polarities: sleeping/waking, nature/civilization, love/hate, love/lust, man/woman, destruction/creation, creation/imitation, remembering/forgetting. The following is a hopelessly incomplete try at capturing some of the stronger impressions.

"The Next Time You Say 'Forever'" -- The human and the animal: "fight-or-flight alarm," after which love, loss, and violence intersect again: "The next time you say 'forever,' I will punch you in your face."

"People Got A Lotta Nerve" -- The next book in the epic, narrated by a "man-man-man-eater" references, as all good epics do, the epics that came before it -- in this instance, Neko Case's previous live album, The Tigers Have Spoken. The persona is overtly an animal now, no longer a cyclone, but still belonging to nature more than to human civilization. But this begs the question of whether there is a difference worth noticing.

"Polar Nettles" -- A man takes his dinner in bed and is, seconds later, revealed to be "fileted" on the stairs. Domesticity and death mingle, soon followed by civility and violence: "The Sistine Chapel painted with a gatling gun."

"Vengeance is Sleeping" -- Now a male persona speaks, at least in part, in a refrain of "I'm not the man you thought I was." "I was nobody. All I had was my invention." The themes of love, lust, domesticity and cage-rattling return: "If you're not dead and buried, you're most certifiably married. Oh merry!" versus "easy loves you keep like pets" versus "my love has never lived indoors." "You're the one that I still miss, and the truth is that it comes as no surprise."

"Never Turn Your Back on Mother Earth" -- "Don't be tempted by her favors." Whose favors? Nature's favors, but that can't be all. Clouds, faithlessness, fear. Natural and animal forces cross with romantic forces, joined by a tie of violence and discord.

"Middle Cyclone" -- The wistfulness and resignation of the epic hero: "did someone make a fool of me? For I can show them how it's done." She cannot but "ride a bus to the outskirts of the fact that I need love." Spilled water, bells that "shake her deaf and dumb." She stands in the eye of the storm of her own making -- fate has set her place but she must carry forth with all disharmony in tow.

"Fever" -- Ants march across her temple, "prisoners of their destination." Lust, a spider, rejoicing feet, tapping feet, tapping canes. "I caught his words in my open mouth" -- the theme of imitation, singing the songs of another. A mention of schrapnel -- spillage from that gatling gun? "My dove is home, my breast is warm."

"Magpie to the Morning" -- Hope awakes: "don't let this fading summer pass you by." She offers songs from sounds stolen from whippoorwills and car alarms, nature and what passes for civilization.

"I'm an Animal" (even better version) -- Now it's time for the decisive battle, ready or not, equipped with proper instinct or not: "courage is roaring like the sound of the sun" versus "I'm made of mistakes." No victory on this field can ever be more than transient: "I love you this hour -- this hour today -- and heaven will smell like the airport." Motion, flight-or-fight, embracing the storm: "let's not waste our time thinking how -- I'm an animal, you're an animal too."

"Prison Girls" -- Continuing the theme of immediacy and impermanence: "My hotel room won't remember me / this dream will die by morning / this dream will not remember me." It's all a deadly serious game with arbitrary rules: "Who am I tonight?" Miles. A question of authenticity and identity: she clasps her breast, plays the part, and delivers the line -- "I love your long shadow and your gunpowder eyes" -- to the audience and to whoever is lying beside her, whoever she is tonight, in a hotel room that won't remember.

Ah, but as we learned in an earlier song/book, animals possess and prioritize memory, just as people do. Hence the Harry Nilsson cover, "Don't Forget Me," but interestingly placed and transformed. Now the persona wants to be remembered: "I think about you, let me know you think about me too" -- animalistic within the frames of this epic. "When we're older." This is not the gunpowder eyes line, nor is it her song, but she performs it. "Nothing lasts forever" rises loudest with background singers.

"The Pharaohs" -- A marriage happens indoors and yet the tornado returns. Blue is sadness, white is innocence? The things people say -- "good enough for love, good enough for me." Good enough, truly? The cage-ratting renews: her "body burned but you never came to bed / you kept me wanting like in the movies."

"Red Tide -- The suggestion of a death-like resolution: "choked in fishing lines" and smells of "dog hair on the heater." In the end, happily or not, nature wins: "the mollusks, they have won."

"Marais La Nuit" -- Like a true epic, there is no proper ending. The album closes with a half hour of pond sounds. Nature will do as it does, before, during, and after any cyclones of human or non-human passion. In an interview with Tavis Smiley, she discusses this as a sort of koan to close the album (part one, part two).

There aren't enough stars to rate this recording.

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