Sincerity

And would it have been worth it, after all,
Would it have been worth while,
After the sunsets and the dooryards and the sprinkled streets,
After the novels, after the teacups, after the skirts that trail along the floor-
And this, and so much more?-
It is impossible to say just what I mean!
But as if a magic lantern threw the nerves in patterns on a screen:
Would it have been worth while
If one, settling a pillow or throwing off a shawl,
And turning toward the window, should say:
‘That is not it at all,
That is not what I meant, at all.’

The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock, T.S. Eliot

Politicians, journalists, businessmen, athletes and hipster frown on it, but artists must, absolutely must, be sincere. The work of any artist relies on a fundamental sense that they mean what they say, that they are trustworthy. They may use subterfuge as a means of seduction, but the ultimate goal must be some sort of honesty. Art fails when the artist cannot reliably report the truth, perhaps by not being aware of it, which is not uncommon, or deliberately so, like Richard Strauss or Puccini. Telling deliberate untruths about subjects opens up questions of ethics and morals, and it is imperative to sincerely express what it is you mean. And it is the sincerity of two new recordings about difficult subjects, people who are suffering, that makes them both so astonishing.

Matt MarksThe Little Death: Volume 1 and Corey Dargel’s double-CD Someone Will Take Care Of Me are both about love, difficult, fraught, complex love. It’s love in circumstances most of us would probably rather do without, but it’s love expressed with great musical skill and profound emotional, moral and ethical sympathy.

These are also, literally, theatrical records, works meant for the stage presented for listening. Someone Will Take Care Of Me is made up of musical theater pieces Dargel has been presenting for a few years, and Marks’ work will be making a two-week run in July at the Ontological Theater. Both releases work musically, with Dargel’s two pieces coming off as discrete sets of songs circling around different subjects, while The Little Death sounds like a companion recording to a musical or opera; it stands well on its own and will wet the appetite for catching a performance in person.

But, back to love and sincerity. The vast majority of songs ever written are about love of one kind or another, so what sets the songs on these CDs apart? For Matt Marks, it’s the conflict between love, and lust, for God and for a girl, while for Dargel, it’s love as two different afflictions, one relatively mild, hypochondria, the other rare, disturbing and deeply strange, Body Integrity Integration Disorder. Now, please keep reading, because these recordings are wonderful.

Love at a tangent is Dargel’s métier. His debut release was the memorable Other People’s Love Songs, songs about the loves of other people, specific couples and their individual memories and experienced. The new music continues and expands his role as a medium of love, expressing the thoughts and feelings of others who may not have as capable a voice, and doing so with implicit empathy. He handled all the music on the first release, but the new discs features accompaniment from the International Contemporary Ensemble and drummer David T. Little on Thirteen Near-Death Experiences, and pianist Kathleen Supové for Removable Parts. Dargel has in individual style, emphasizing broken up pulses and chords in the music and singing across wider intervals than most others do, which enhances the already attractive resonance in his voice. These technical means allow him to set his lyrics in expressive and musical ways, scanning the different rhythms of his into into phrases that don’t have to conform to a four or eight bar regularity. The arrangements for ICE on the first disc open up the textures for light and space, the music balances vibrant attacks with a basic gentle suppleness. Even though Little is behind the kit, he doesn’t keep a beat so much as define the shifting meters and pulses, while the piano, strings and winds line the space around the vocals and put the songs on display.

And what songs. Songs about love as something to enthrall and survive, as an unavoidable illness, songs in the voices of people who, despite their deficits, love and want to be loved. If that sounds too much like the bathos of Morrissey, Dargel has so much more charm and wit, as well as an effortless touch. Songs that say “… I was given Ritalin/Little did they know/That babies grow/A little less with each dose,” and “There’s no mystery/Given my family’s medical history/I’m headed for an early demise/The only surprise is what it will be for me … Cardiac arrest or clinically depressed,” or “I’d like to think/You’re more mature/But you spike my drink/And now that I’m awake/I’m shaky and unsure/And just to torment me/You convince me/There there is no cure” to what could only be two afflictions, one of them being love. Of course, he also sings ‘Sometimes a Migraine is Just a Migraine,’ and wraps the series with an almost mainstream pop song, bright and with hints of a waltz, the title track, in which illness is both metaphorical and physical, and where the protagonist is loved until the end: “my prognosis absolutely hopeless/But someone will take care of me/As illness devours my mortal clay.” Dargel is an optimist, and his optimism is humane and necessary.

Thirteen Near-Death Experiences is an excellent cycle, Removable Parts is even better. In his quiet way he makes the incomprehensible understandable. How can we understand the overwhelming feeling that our corporeal selves are incomplete exactly because we are intact, that removing a hand, an arm or a leg will make us whole? Dargel turns BIID into a metaphor for love; impossible love, unrequited love, lost love, love that needs some kind of solution to work, and the solution is the loss of a body part. It’s ingenious and also powerfully affecting, the lyrics are haunting and lovely. It’s worth quoting the entirety of ‘Fully Functional’ to show how it works:

You made me make believe
That we would lie in bed forever
We would do nothing at all
But sleep together
And if one of us had to leave
The other would naturally follow
But your heat just like your legs
Turned out to be cold and hollow

We were never fully functional
The tragic victims of our circumstance
But we were funny and original
And we redefined romance
Open-ended improvisational
No one need lead our dance
Non-committed and non-emotional
I guess we never had a chance

It was beautiful while it lasted
I would help you out of your chair
And out of your underwear
Caressing your skin-tone plastic
Was nothing short of divine
It was fantastic
Holding your phantom hand in mine

The music helps this work, of course. Suppové is sensitive, forceful and precise as an accompanist, and the straightforward quality of the arrangements – some, like ‘Fingers,’ are fairly familiar pop – and the lyrical material moves the expression into ever more intimate realms, helped by close, natural miking of the singer. The songs and the music move inward and upward, towards an inevitable conclusion and a sense of acceptance and even some joy, and gradually pare away elements, seemingly by design. The danceable pop of ‘Castration’ supports the consideration of “why would I pass along these defective genes/They’ve caused me nothing but trouble … I don’t want to just stand around waiting/For that inevitable rejection/Really all I’m doing is accelerating/The process of natural selection.” The next track is the penultimate, ‘Brain,’ “and when the doctor asks you what’s the matter/Just tell them I need a hemispherectomy/And the only way that you’ll respect me/Is if I stop calling you and stop stalking you/Is if I forget how much I love you.” After this, the singer’s voice is literally gone; the lyrics for the final track, ‘Everybody Wannabe,’ are conveyed via processed computer voice. As the odd, vaguely human voice says “it’s better for me this way/To be unable to speak at all/Because it’s always been so hard for me to say goodbye,” the music expresses a feeling of satisfying finality. Heard as a whole, all the songs leading to this last one, the result is mysteriously moving. The deep strangeness of the context is tempered by Dargel’s lyrical and musical artistry, and he is revealing some kind of truth to the listener by stating:

I did not choose to have the feelings I have
But I did choose to act on my feelings
And you should be more kind
You should not trample on the feelings of those you love
That is no way to behave

In his own, different way, Marks is just as empathetic and expressive about the human condition. To make an artificial, but useful distinction, while Dargel is making a social argument, Marks is making a political one (though neither is intentionally doing any of that). Two of the things that fuck up America are religion and sex, and they fuck up America because the loudest, most pervasive discussions about each are essentially ignorant of their qualities and their almost perfect elision. Watching TV or reading the newspaper, one would never imagine that a person could be both religious and sexual, when of course being religious and being sexual are two of the most basic qualities of being human. But the professional scolds and ignoramuses would be out of jobs if American culture opened its eyes to this simple truth. And so little girls pledge their virginity to their fathers, priests rape children, a Congressman and his mistress make a video promoting abstinence and unwed teenagers in Red states become parents. And Matt Marks makes a record …

The Little Death is music theater, pop/rock opera really, and tremendously accomplished. Marks made the whole thing himself and plays all the instruments, except for guitar and trumpet, and sings the part of Boy with the excellent and versatile Mellissa Hughes as Girl. The music captures pop styles in the way a musical does, by hitting certain numbers, but there’s nothing wrong with that approach (Urinetown is a great example of how well the standard style can work) and in any case the music is just so good that I found myself strolling through Brooklyn this morning humming ‘OMG I’m Shot’ to myself, certainly the best sock-hop-dance-pop-driving-rock song about being shot ever written. The Little Death also offers bits of staggered punk and erotic rock ballad, but in a nutshell Marks works very much like Mikel Rouse, but more explosively intense and exuberant, with touches of Carl Stone. Making music in this theatrical style means connecting with, but not pandering to, the audience, there’s some obligation to give the listener enough of what they may expect or be familiar with as a bit of legerdemain before hitting them with the goods.

In this case the goods are that a young person could be full of lust for both God and Girl and not be a caricature scheduled for an upcoming very special “Dr. Phil.” Boy and Girl are not caricatures, though. Their names may be generic, but Marks treats them with focused honesty, expressing their confusion with simplicity, but never patronizing them or making them simple-minded. Like Dargel, he has great sympathy for them and can fill in their depths with well-chosen bits of cultural shorthand:

Boy: I like Facebook!
Girl: I like MySpace!

Marks does most of his work with the music, repeating pithy, aphoristic lyrics under a changing bed of harmony, textures and beats that carries the dramatic line along just as music in a traditional opera does. He is explicitly modeling a lot of the music after Christian pop, and since Christian pop is the step-child (bastard?) of mainstream pop, young singers emulate the simulated sexuality of wailing melisma common in everything from Katy Perry to renditions of the national anthem before ballgames. In ‘Come Boy,’ Hughes repeats the lyric “come boy, come to my church boy” with unmistakable, powerful lust. Her singing, and Marks arrangement of Bill Gaither’s devotional ‘He Touched Me,’ is the pivot point of the music, the drama and conception, the moment when the piece turns into itself in the unresolved confusion of the characters. They love and want each other, they love and want Jesus, and they think one of these things is wrong, but which one? The music drives this conflict home with intensity, and then draws to a surprisingly gentle conclusion, in an almost joyous anthem, with the question of wanting both things, the certainty and doubt in each, before Boy and Girl.

Marks makes us feel the hurtling confusion of young people on the cusp of thinking for themselves, whipsawed between two equally powerful desires and cultural conventions that tell them they are mutually exclusive. Dargel makes us feel the untethered sensation of people who do think for themselves and find those thoughts a misfit for the world they live in. Neither artist condemns, both offer understanding and sympathy. While we must await what happens in the conclusion of The Little Death, in the meantime you should be listening to these recordings for their sincerity, humanity and the pleasure of hearing artists command such expressive powers.

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