The packaging has a homemade, dossier feel to it with its courier font and textured card stock. A rambling, nearly stream of conscious lyric sheet is stuffed in one of its pockets like a frantically-typed, yellowed note to self. The inside cover has red type that reads: “One said the elliptical sleep sound unwound in the throat of her abed exhaling dreams that you find at the back part of your mind and she can’t sleep for it.” It is secretive and raw. This is Montreal musician, Ben McCarthy’s project Archivist, including members of The Dears, Sunset Rubdown, Pony Up and Land of Talk, and the resultant record called Learning to Live on Poison. It is a document of passion, confusion, self-loathing and self-immolation. Like reading a particularly dense, but valuable book, McCarthy’s album and lyric sheet are to be mulled over and worked through. This album questions identity, desire, love, art, belief and every other facet of our human consciousness, and it does it through a wealth of complex language with the musicality of a true poet. Meter and internal rhyme create music from the page alone, and with the added benefit of aurality, these songs expand into more than the two dimensions of the page.
The record begins with Opening in which McCarthy declares “I’m trying to dissolve myself completely. I’m trying to explode my dogged will” in a stark, gospel accapella. His voice, and soon the voices of others, fill the silence, the emptiness, a fermata of vacant mindscapes; despite his attempt at finding the “gaps we tell our lies for,” his busy mind cannot be still, cannot stop making connections, cannot stop foiling him with his own faith. A minute and a half into the song, strings begin to pulse to a 3/4 beat against droning voices in a mesmerizing Eastern feel. With the thickness and otherworldliness of a Sunday morning, Sunday Morning comes next, full of slinky, laconic guitars, punctuated by drums, trumpet and tambourine. McCarthy repeats the line “it’s Sunday morning coming down,” emphasizing the unique quality of the disappointment and deflation on the day of rest. In Educated Hand, guitar arpeggios push the song gently along like a current in a brook; the atmosphere of the track is dream-like and dizzying, forming spires and peaks of smoke. There is an intensity and depth to the murkiness and haze like the sensory reality of a hallucination before it all fades into chimes. There’s a resignation to a form of inexplicable fate in this track as the lyrical content describes betrayal of self and beloved, and the way we seem to poison and infect those we are closest to.
Jagwagger, whose title sounds like a clever Carrollian creation, follows with enigmatic cymbal and tomtom drums before a fantastic guitar riff comes in. The music for this song gives you the impression of being circled by a tribe of cannibals, which is appropriate considering the song appears to be about an all-consuming lack and/or boredom: “I feel nothing again (an accidental violence) no madman, no tyrant, just boredom. There’s no humour in this smile, no dearth in what I don’t know, a blankfaced little child, no dearth in what I don’t know.” There’s a schizophrenia to the song in the style of Of Montreal and a desperate soulfulness reminiscent of TV on the Radio before it disappears into spacey organ at the end. The bit of controlled chaos ends to start a beautiful, fluid acoustic ballad, Son of My Sorrows (Genesis 49:27). There is a dark claustrophobia to the song, but the melody is so delicate that its strings weave a thread-like cage as subtle, but as strong, as a spider’s web. The biblical verse in question reads: “Benjamin is a ravenous wolf; In the morning he devours the prey, And in the evening he divides the spoil.” McCarthy, who shares his first name with the biblical character, deftly parallels his own self-loathing and seeming incapacity to change his flawed nature; he sings, “Benjamin is not one. I am nothing. Benjamin is a ravenous wolf. Without you I remain […] I am nothing. You made me. You can’t help me. I love you. Our kingdom will not come. I remain. I remain. I remain. I remain. As I divide the spoils.” McCarthy becomes a cipher for others to fill or empty at will while being the only one left to deal with the fallout of a relationship; in spite of his yearning to disappear and destroy himself, he remains, pickled in his own imperfections. With a faster tempo and electronic burblings elliding a crisp beat, Pop Litany fluxes between clipped, jigging speech patterns and smoother, swirling vocals, alternating between torment and calm. It feels like the battle between insomniac panic attacks and attempts at a lullaby sweetened with twinkling glockenspiel. The lyrics are brilliant:
And what if all these feeble pop songs became for us as incantations? And all of our mixtapes a heretic’s litany of curses we would have to suffer, broken broken heart, life of the party but estranged from our art, beauty loves a liar but so so so so so does your g-d.
Wherever “god” appears in the lyric sheet its “o” is conspicuously missing. While there is a Jewish tradition of avoiding spelling the name of God out of reverence, McCarthy seems to be playing with this respectful measure by not capitalizing the “g” and perhaps emphasizing the emptiness within the word itself. McCarthy sounds like a suffering scribe at the mercy of an OCD-fuelled night of listmaking as he breathlessly repeats, “I did it, I found it, I wrote it all down.” The song ends with the tapping of an old typewriter as all attempts at empty, memory-erasing sleep fail.
The second half of the album commences with Speaking, which has droning cello dragging below the skipping surface of guitar and the see-saw of violins. The skewed religious imagery continues as McCarthy repeats “I want my words to be like bread. But I can’t speak.” He is impotent in the midst of his song, which is ironic considering the verbosity and sheer power of his language throughout the record; he can still only offer an empty, meaningless communion with the one he wrote the song for. It ends with a quote performed by Rick Cluchey from Samuel Beckett’s Endgame, a play about diseased stasis. From the melodic action of Speaking, the album moves into a more hymn-like direction with Love Sick Man. The dextrous guitar arpeggios resonate with humming and fingers troubling the frets while there is something almost ominous in the song’s serenity. McCarthy declares, “Love is a discipline that takes even the faithless in, and if I fail this time I will not try again,” as he fights for distraction. Unfortunately, just like sleep won’t come, diversion won’t either.
I shouldn’t be surprised that McCarthy has a song named after Anne Carson, the Canadian poet, essayist and Classics professor. A few years back, I was encouraged to read a couple of her poetic books by a co-worker, who was utterly in love with her writing – so much so that he carried her book Autobiography of Red with him all the time. Having read Autobiography of Red, a verse novel based on Stesichorus’ poem Geryonis and the myth of Geryon and Herakles, and her long poem The Beauty of the Husband, I can completely see the parallels and influences on McCarthy’s work here. She, too, packs meaning upon allegorical, referential meaning in a fluid torrent of language and metaphorical juxtaposition while exploring the depth of pain and the incomprehensibility of love, including its gradations and degradations. Love is not simple in Carson’s work, nor is ultimately satisfying, and McCarthy’s record expresses a similar sentiment. Some of my favourite lines in the whole album are in this song: “Yet the clawings on the cell wall staid, in fact, they are engraved, though the whole panopticon waltzed glassly off the stage” and “Always one side’s meant for cutting and the other’s meant to bleed, such wounds are drawn together by the gravity of need.” There’s a violence and venom to the lyrics while the music itself connotes both a spaghetti Western and a circus, a simultaneous sense of confrontation and flippant nonsense. Then comes the track, seeing * **, which burns along like a clementine fire, blown into different directions at once and occasionally exploding the life-giving sap out the aortas of tree trunks. It is one of the most lyrically dense songs, and it just staggers me that there can be so much meaning in a few verses. It is a song of life and death and lack of achievement and lack of integrity. It barrels through countless intertextual references, including references within the album itself; for example, “he writes ‘the game won’t end’ on the back of his dishpan hand,” which recalls the earlier use of Beckett’s Endgame and reinforces the irrational necessity for stasis even it’s putrifying. It’s as though McCarthy is both yearning for and afraid of blindsight, sight without sensation. The strange grouping of asterisks in the title feel like placeholders or footnotes that lead nowhere because seeing isn’t believing, so sightlessness is preferable. As a perfect closed parenthesis to the record, Closing hearkens back to the mystical feel of Opening. The plaintive acoustic guitar and the magic charm of violin converge to create a dangerous, gothic Mediterranean feel with dashes of flamenco; the song becomes a pasa doble of the self, attempting to conquer one’s own thoughts and feelings. The track ends with the profound line “You’ve been learning to live on poison – the sad truth is it won’t do you in.”
Despite the seeming finality of Closing, there is one more track as a curtain call, which is McCarthy reading his “Flowers: a poem” initially over tattoo of drums and distant vocals and then over nothing at all. His voice is slightly shadowed by reverb, paralleling the shaky, nearly doubled type on the album case. It begins with the prescient “I gave her flowers when she came home though I could swear I taught her ever to be suspicious of such a gesture.” There is an eerie detachment to the whole poem in which McCarthy dissects the gangrenous parts of relationships – a painful game is played while both parties try to forget it’s happening. As McCarthy states, “we, too, are susceptible to the achingly daily ambience of a pot of daisies.” His last fragment of the poem is the phrase “pushing daisies,” which can be read in at least two ways here: as decay and death or as decoy and dearth; the moribund relationship or the forcing of a superficial sentiment on another. The track ends with feedback that surges around your ears like water drowning your brain.
Words like “litany” and “dearth” make several appearances throughout the record, and I think that’s significant. Litany is a type of prayer based on repetition, and there is reiteration of lines in all of these songs; at the same time, there is a scarcity and a grasping for something valuable permeating the album. There’s a sense of not being able to move on, a recognition that we may pollute ourselves without a hope of redemption. The narrator, who may very well be McCarthy as he references himself by name twice in the lyrics, is the recorder, preserver and curator of his own grief, his own toxicity. This is the dossier of a person searching for his own truth and ensuring that he writes every detail down. For there is power in words even when you long to forget. It is the scripture of a madman who cannot conquer his own instinct to survive. Even if survival means adaptation to poison.
You can buy Learning to Live on Poison here.
Archivist’s MySpace: http://www.myspace.com/archivistmusic