15
May
09

A Record of Decay and Death, Decoy and Dearth: Archivist’s Learning to Live on Poison

Archivist_Learning_to_Live_on_Poison

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

Pop Litany – Archivist

seeing * ** – Archivist

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6 Responses to “A Record of Decay and Death, Decoy and Dearth: Archivist’s Learning to Live on Poison”


  1. 1 hummer
    May 15, 2009 at 11:22 am

    there is no sunset rubdown connection. check yer facts.

    • 2 condemnedtorocknroll
      May 15, 2009 at 11:34 am

      I worked from the official press release I was given, which names Sunset Rubdown (as does the description on CD Baby).

  2. 3 moonshine shorey
    May 15, 2009 at 2:00 pm

    I thought you did a great job reviewing this album. Have had it for a little over a week and it does take a bit to settle into the songs, but i think that’s a great quality to have as a musician. The writing is superb and the mix of diverse musical elements really does it for me. Jagwagger is an awesome little gem of a song. I expect great things from Archivist and can’t wait to see them live again. Fun Fun show.

  3. May 20, 2009 at 6:57 pm

    Camilla from Sunset Rubdown contributes some vocals to the record.


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The only certain thing that is left about me

There is no part of my body that has not been used

Pity or pain, to show displeasure's shame

Everyone I've loved or hated always seems to leave

Photobucket

So I turned myself to face me

But I've never caught a glimpse

Of how the others must see the faker

I'm much too fast to take that test

The Smiths Queen is Dead

A dreaded sunny day

So let's go where we're happy

And I meet you at the cemetry gates

Oh, Keats and Yeats are on your side

A dreaded sunny day

So let's go where we're wanted

And I meet you at the cemetry gates

Keats and Yeats are on your side

But you lose 'cause weird lover Wilde is on mine

The Clash London Calling

When they kick at your front door

How you gonna come?

With your hands on your head

Or on the trigger of your gun

Photobucket

Charles Windsor, who's at the door

At such an hour, who's at the door

In the back of an old green Cortina

You're on your way to the guillotine

Here the rabble comes

The kind you hoped were dead

They've come to chop, to chop off your head

Photobucket

Then you came with your breezeblocks

Smashing up my face like a bus-stop

You think you're giving

But you're taking my life away

Photobucket

Won't someone give me more fun?

(and the skin flies all around us)

We kiss in his room to a popular tune

Oh, real drowners

Photobucket

Don't walk away

In silence

See the danger

Always danger

Endless talking

Life rebuilding

Don't walk away

Walk in silence

Don't turn away in silence

Your confusion

My illusion

Worn like a mask of self-hate

Confronts and then dies

Don't walk away

Photobucket

You don't want to hurt me

But see how deep the bullet lies

Unaware I'm tearing you asunder

Oh there is thunder in our hearts

Is there so much hate for the ones we love

Tell me we both matter don't we

The Associates Affectionate

I don't know whether

To over or under estimate you

Whether to over or under estimate you

For when I come over

You then put me under

Personal taste is a matter of gender

Photobucket

I wake at dusk to go alone without a light

To the unknown

I want this night inside of me

I want to feel

I want this speeding

I want that speeding

Photobucket

You'll never live like common people

You'll never do what common people do

You'll never fail like common people

You'll never watch your life slide out of view

And dance and drink and screw

Because there's nothing else to do

Vanilla Swingers

All I have is words, words that don't obtain

And I feel I'm a stain on your horizon

So I stay away - it's easier that way

And there won't be no-one I need to rely on

Is it him, is it me

Or is there something only I can see

How did I get here, why do we blow around like straw dogs on the breeze

I'm a special one, what they used to say

But I've to stay on, finish levels-A

You don't need exams when you've read John Gray

The Indelicates American Demo

And nobody ever comes alive

And the journalists clamour round glamour like flies

And boys who should know better grin and get high

With fat men who once met the MC5

And no one discusses what they don't understand

And no one does anything to harm the brand

And this gift is an illusion, this isn't hard

Absolutely anyone can play the fucking guitar

JAMC Darklands

And we tried so hard

And we looked so good

And we lived our lives in black

Photobucket

Plucked her eyebrows on the way

Shaved her leg and then he was a she

She says, hey babe,

Take a walk on the wild side

Said, hey honey, take a walk on the wild side

Photobucket

Hide on the promenade

Etch a postcard:

How I dearly wish I was not here

In the seaside town...that they forgot to bomb

Come, come, come - nuclear bomb

Photobucket

Back when we were kids

We would always know when to stop

And now all the good kids are messing up

Nobody has gained or accomplished anything

Wire Pink Flag

Prices have risen since the government fell

Casualties increase as the enemy shell

The climate's unhealthy, flies and rats thrive

And sooner or later the end will arrive

This is your correspondent, running out of tape

Gunfire's increasing, looting, burning, rape

Photobucket

Well, maybe there's a god above

But all I've ever learned from love

Was how to shoot somebody who outdrew you

It's not a cry that you hear at night

It's not somebody who's seen the light

It's a cold and it's a broken hallelujah

Photobucket

And what costume shall the poor girl wear

To all tomorrow's parties

For Thursday's child is Sunday's clown

For whom none will go mourning

Photobucket

My body is your body

I won't tell anybody

If you want to use my body

Go for it

Photobucket

Oh it's opening time

Down on Fascination Street

So let's cut the conversation

And get out for a bit

Because I feel it all fading and paling

And I'm begging

To drag you down with me

Mansun Six

And you see, I kind of shivered to conformity

Did you see the way I cowered to authority

You see, my life, it's a series of compromises anyway

It's a sham, and I'm conditioned to accept it all, you see

Japan Gentlemen

Take in the country air, you'll never win

Gentlemen take polaroids

They fall in love, they fall in love

Photobucket

We just want to emote til we're dead

I know we suffer for fashion

Or whatever

We don't want these days to ever end

We just want to emasculate them forever

Forever, forever

Pretty sirens don't go flat

It's not supposed to happen like that

Longpigs The Sun

There's no perfume I can buy

Make me smell like myself

So I put on perfume

To make me smell like someone else

In bed

Calvin Harris I Created Disco

I got love for you if you were born in the 80's, the 80's

I've got hugs for you if you were born in the 80's, the 80's

Photobucket

Does his makeup in his room

Douse himself with cheap perfume

Eyeholes in a paper bag

Greatest lay I ever had

Kind of guy who mates for life

Gotta help him find a wife

We're a couple, when our bodies double

Simple Minds Sons and Fascination

Summer rains are here

Savaged beauty life

Falling here from grace

Sister feeling call

Cruising land to land

No faith no creed no soul

Half a world away

Beauty sleeps in time

Sound and fury play

Bloc Party Silent Alarm

North to south

Empty

Running on

Bravado

As if to say, as if to say

He doesn't like chocolate

He's born a liar, he'll die a liar

Some things will never be different

Photobucket

LCD Soundsystem

Well Daft Punk is playing at my house, my house

I've waited 7 years and 15 days

There's every kid for miles at my house, my house

And the neighbors can't...call the police

There's a fist fight brewin' at my house, my house

Because the jocks can't...get in the door

Johnny Boy

I just can't help believing

Though believing sees me cursed

Stars Set Yourself

I am trying to say

What I want to say

Without having to say "I love you"

Josef K Entomology

It took 10 years to realise why the angels start to cry

When you go home down the main

Your happy smile

Your funny name

Cocteau Twins Bluebell

Photobucket

Doesn't she look a million with her hairagami set

Hair kisses 'n' hair architecture

Yes, she's a beautiful brunette angel from heaven with her hairagami set

Hair kisses 'n' hair architecture

Augment a beautiful brunette

New Order Power Corruption

How does it feel

To treat me like you do

When you've laid your hands upon me

And told me who you are

Photobucket

You must let her go

She's not crying

Photobucket

Baiting

Feeling like I'm waiting

Modern times

Valentines

Hating

Hating to distraction

Just leave them alone

Whipcrack

Girls in the back

Girls in the back

Puressence Don't Forget

They say come back to earth and start getting real, yeah

I say come back to earth and start getting real

I know I can't

Photobucket

So I walk right up to you

And you walk all over me

And I ask you what you want

And you tell me what you need

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The problem of leisure

What to do for pleasure

Ideal love a new purchase

A market of the senses

Dream of the perfect life

Economic circumstances

The body is good business

Sell out, maintain the interest

Photobucket

Sitting in my armchair thinking again and again and again

Going round in a circle I can't get out

Then I look around thinking day and night and day

Then you look around - there must be some explanation

And the tension builds

Psychdedelic Furs

India, India

You're my love song

India, you're my love song

In the flowers

You can have me in the flowers

We will dance alone

And live our useless lives

Ladytron Light Magic

They only want you when you're seventeen

When you're twenty-one

You're no fun

They take a polaroid and let you go

Say they'll let you know

Photobucket

No consolation prizes

Spit out your lies and chewing gum

Cut off your hair yeah that's it!

If you look like that I swear I'm gonna love you more

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All the neighbors are startin' up a fire

Burning all the old folks, the witches and the liars.

My eyes are covered by the hands of my unborn kids

But my heart keeps watchin' through the skin of my eyelids

Photobucket

Prince charming

Prince charming

Ridicule is nothing to be scared of

Don't you ever, don't you ever

Stop being dandy, showing me you're handsome


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