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Some Serious Music: Spektor, Cohen, and Godspeed You! Black Emperor

Jacob Perl
January 18, 2013

by Jacob L. Perl

2012 was a good year for Jewish music, with mainstream releases from both Regina Spektor and Leonard Cohen.

The Spektor album, What We Saw From The Cheap Seats, contains the gentlest call to live that we've heard in a while, a song in which she reminds us that, yes, we're still alive — we might as well throw ourselves into this world:

"The piano is not firewood yet

They try to remember

But still they forget

That the heart beats in threes

Just like a waltz,

And nothing can stop you from dancing.

Rise from your cold hospital bed

I tell you, you're not dying

Everyone knows you're going to live,

So you might as well start trying."

Then in her song, "All of the Rowboats," Spektor draws a dramatic sketch of violins and the paintings of boats in a museum. She describes the rowboats as trapped and constantly trying to escape, the violins as coughing, unable to clear their throats, muted. A curious personification, yes — and the picky among us might argue that neither violins nor painted boats would really mind being in museums — but the way we house art certainly affects our thinking. Besides, there is a childlike part of us that thinks of everything as being alive and feeling, isn't there?

It has become pleasingly clear is that Spektor will continue to grow as a songwriter for as long as she is around. Good for us.

The Leonard Cohen album, Old Ideas, begins with a song 'by' God, talking about Leonard Cohen, which is bold and suitable, considering that this gentle, thoughtful, and now old man has always been unapologetically prone to the majestic. Do you remember the song he wrote so long ago about Joan of Arc marrying the fire, how he described the two of them speaking to each other? The man has always toyed with the grandiose in a special way, neither ironic nor arrogant, which is illustrated by his flamboyant use of backup singers.
Then, a bit out of the mainstream, we saw the return of the Montreal post-rock band, Godspeed You! Black Emperor, after a seven-year hiatus, with a rhythmic, disparate, and intense set of four songs under the title Alleluja! Don't Bend! Ascend!
Godspeed's music is defined by its seriousness, sadness, build, and aliveness. It is like heavy metal, but with fiddles and occasional cello. One of its persistent but elusive qualities is that it feels as if it is gathered from somewhere. The first minute and a half of Alleluja! sounds almost ambient (the ambiance of walking at night through a market past a basement where people are playing with their instruments). Out of this something emerges rhythm, hum and melody, which build until they are pounding. The way the music moves renders it very alive, and this aliveness helps counter the sorrow that is the weight of much of Godspeed's music.

The band's tendency to draw from ambiance rhythm and then fall back into ambiance is summed up by a snippet of Hebrew text, "tohu wa-bohu," which Godspeed used as the front of their 1999 album, Slow Riot for New Zero Kanada. The phrase, which means "formless and empty," is used in Genesis to describe the world before creation, and in Jeremiah to describe the land after a war that has desolated it.

Their music is serious. Do you ever wonder why we don't hear more songs like Dylan's "Masters of War" — that song in which he promises to follow the caskets of the warmongers and to stand on their graves until he's sure they're not getting back up? If your friends are like mine, they'll have a lot of opinions about this scarcity of serious anti-war music — from claims about the intentions of music industry execs, to ideas about what kinds of songs people who have actually been through war like to write, to claims about popular taste in music. But the fact is that much of the discourse about war, even in the liberal press, is more about the failures of strategy, the exorbitant costs in "lives and treasure," the failure to achieve stated goals like "nation-building" — rather than about war as, by definition, a failure.

Efrim Manuel Menuck, who is a member of both Godspeed and its sister band, The Silver Mt. Zion Memorial Orchestra, summarizes much of this discourse in a single line (with the latter band) when he cries out, "dead kids don't get photographed — God bless our dead marines." This crying out is present, in instrumental form, on Alleluja! Don't Bend Ascend. The music is heavy (of course). In the track, "Their Helicopters Sing," it is hard to tell if the music is imitating war helicopters or the despair of the people who hear them coming. And in tone, Godspeed is a bomber — but a bomber of the world to come, dropping marimba sounds.

Bassist Thierry Amar, who is also a member of both the Godspeed and the Silver Mt. Zion projects, adds Jewish heart to the band, as a veteran of Black Ox Orkestar, a Yiddish language band with releases in 2004 and 2006 that drew support from the same scene as Godspeed.

You wouldn't want to hire them to play your bar mitzvah party, but we can thank God there's is still place for such seriousness in the concert halls of this world.

Jacob L. Perl is a poet in Madison, Wisconsin.