Monday, May 30, 2016

Amen & Goodbye by Yeasayer: A Track-by-Track Analysis

Brooklyn weirdos Yeasayer released their fourth LP, Amen & Goodbye, last month, and it's definitely one of my favourite albums of the year thus far, a colourful cornucopia of bouncy pop and blissed-out psychedelia that's easily up there with 2010's sublime Odd Blood.

Yeasayer decamped to the Catskill Mountains to record their latest opus, and they must have done a lot of reading while they were there because Amen & Goodbye is packed to the rafters with arcane scientific and biblical references. As a result, the record's lyrics can seem kind of impenetrable, at least until you remember that Google exists; some might wistfully suggest that search engines have robbed works like this of the bewitching, impenetrable mystery that could otherwise have been such a large part of their charm, but if you yourself are one of those people then I'd advise you to stop reading now because I'm about to perform a Google-assisted dissection of every track on the album.

Still here? Then let's get stuck in - here are my interpretations of the 13 tracks that make up Amen & Goodbye:

1. Daughters of Cain

This is a relatively short track that sets the scene for what's to come. The lyrics ask:

"Are we the sons of Seth and the daughters of Cain
Preparing for the flood from all the rain?
Or are we logos in neurons of the brain,
Maintaining voltage gradients across a membrane?"

Or, to put it more simply: were we created by a God, or are we just the result of science and nature doing their thing? According to the Old Testament, Seth and Cain were both sons of Adam and Eve; Cain, as you may remember from your RE lessons, killed his brother Abel, and in doing so became the world's first murderer. Seth isn't paid as much attention by school curricula, but he's important because he was the ancestor of Noah, the chap with the ark. If you believe that everyone except Noah and his family perished in that massive flood, then it follows that every human to have lived since then was ultimately descended from Seth (making all of us"the sons of Seth"). The "daughters of Cain", I suppose, represent the wicked people who didn't make it onto Noah's ark and ended up drowning because God decided it was time for a cleanse.

(Side note: it's interesting that the sons are 'of Seth' - that is, good and pure and righteous - while the daughters are 'of Cain', i.e. bad and corrupt. Perhaps this is a passing nod to the way Christianity and other religions often portray women as evil temptresses by default?)

Of course, I don't think Yeasayer believe that the flood or any of that actually happened; in fact, the second half of Daughters of Cain suggests that they don't subscribe to any religious beliefs whatsoever:

"We walked out of the sea
And climbed out of the trees
There's a hole in the sky to fill up"

Besides being reminiscent of Monkey Gone to Heaven by the Pixies, this part of the song reveals that, as far as Yeasayer are concerned, humans evolved from tree-dwelling primates who evolved from primordial sea creatures, and we merely invented God to "fill up" that big "hole in the sky" and add some deeper meaning to our existence.

So we're less than 2 minutes in, and already that's one big question answered. What's next?

2. I Am Chemistry

I Am Chemistry namedrops a number of different chemicals and plants and things, the common denominator being that all of them are poisonous in some way. Here's a very quick list (all credit to the very knowledgeable Genius contributor who helpfully annotated this song's lyrics):
  • Digoxin ("from the foxglove plant")
  • VX (a nerve agent that used to be used in chemical warfare)
  • ACN (acetonitrile)
  • DDT (once used as an insecticide)
  • Sarin (C4H10FO2P, another nerve agent)
  • Sulphur dichloride with ethylene (a.k.a. mustard gas)
  • Rue leaves
  • Oleander
  • Quaker buttons (delightfully nicknamed 'vomit nuts')

Some of the toxins listed above (quaker buttons, rue leaves, foxglove plants) are found in nature, while others (like sarin and VX) are man-made. I believe that the key to this song's meaning can be found in the middle eight, just before Suzzy Roche joins the party and the song takes an unexpected turn for the folky:

"She doesn't need my help poisoning the well beneath the rue leaves
She only need my help pleasuring herself beneath the rue leaves"

The point is this: humanity has spent an incredible amount of time, money and effort engineering deadly chemical weapons like sarin, but Mother Nature really doesn't need our assistance when it comes to poisoning people. Our time is much better spent when we work to turn potentially lethal ingredients into something positive; for example, "digoxin from the foxglove plant" has been used to treat heart failure, while rue leaves can be used as a sedative and as a flavouring for alcoholic drinks. In these cases, natural poisons were used for good, which I guess is a far more worthwhile scientific endeavour than creating yet more poisons.

3. Silly Me

One of Amen & Goodbye's more straightforward tracks, this one, in terms of both its poppier, more accessible sound and its relatively familiar lyrical content. The narrator's wife has left him, citing as grounds his "narcissistic behaviour" and the way his love is "doled out in abuse". This is simply the sound of a man admonishing himself for screwing up his relationship, and it contrasts sharply with the high-minded theology and biochemistry in which this album has been wrapped up until now.

I do like the fact that Silly Me is in 3/4 rather than 4/4 time, as if a chunk of the narrator's life (and consequently a beat of every bar of his song) is missing now that his relationship has ended.

4. Half Asleep

I could be way off the mark here, but Half Asleep strikes me as one of those songs about how difficult it is to be famous, man. Yeasayer are hardly burdened with Justin Bieber levels of ubiquity, but I imagine they're 'known' enough to attract their share of hangers-on, and it's the strange otherworld of being 'known' that this song seems to inhabit.

"At night sometimes I wake up
The company I'm keeping
The colours on the walls
I don't recognise at all"

We follow the narrator through a sexual encounter that briefly teeters, Schrödinger-style, on the brink of blossoming into something bigger before the guy makes his excuses and sods off. It's heavily implied that the only reason this one-night stand happens at all is because the woman recognises him as a member of a somewhat popular indie band:

"She said 'I've seen your face somewhere,
Now fuck me while I'm sleeping'"

However, as is always the case with songs like this, our melancholy protagonist is unsatisfied and a little creeped out by the decadent life he's leading; what, he asks, is "the point of being adored" if you just end up wandering, half-asleep, through a series of unfulfilling house parties and meaningless sexual encounters?

Okay, so it's not the easiest song to relate to, but while Half Asleep does come off as kind of ungrateful, it does have a great ending and a nifty little ROPSWED to boot ("I could convince you with O.N.E." is a sly nod to a song from Odd Blood, and yes, it's written as 'O.N.E.' in the lyrics booklet so this was deliberate and I'm not seeing things that aren't there thank you very much).

5. Dead Sea Scrolls

This song is up there with Silly Me as one of the album's catchiest, poppiest moments, but where Silly Me keeps it pretty simple lyrically, Dead Sea Scrolls takes us right back to Obscure Reference City. And so we get lines about "wand wielders" and a "Chthonic throne" and how "the moloch demands sacrifice" and hey when did Yeasayer become a Scandinavian heavy mithril band?

Believe it or not, though, Dead Sea Scrolls isn't an epic fantasy novel set to music but a critique of modern capitalism and how it's replaced the "fake God[s]" we used to worship back in ye olde tymes. More on that in a moment, though; first of all, here's a glossary to help you navigate this song's lyrics:
  • The Dead Sea Scrolls themselves were discovered in a group of caves in the Middle East in the mid-20th century. Among other things, these texts (which are thought to be 2,000 years old plus change) contain quite a lot of the content that would eventually be included in the Bible.

  • 'Chthonic' is a Greek-derived word that basically just means 'underground', but also serves as the official adjective for the underworld of Greek mythology. For example, if you were drinking gin with Hades then you might mix it with some Chthonic tonic.

  • As far as I can tell, Moloch was a deity worshipped by Canaanites as the god of fire. In the Book of Leviticus, Moloch (or Molech) is given as an example of a false god that you shouldn't worship because we've got the real God right here, et cetera. So, for "the moloch demands sacrifice", just read 'the false god demands sacrifice'.
Dead Sea Scrolls uses cleverclogs language like this to portary capitalism - "the holy market" - as "just another fake god" and "just another sleight of hand to keep control". Whereas the folks in charge used to blackmail us into obedience via the threat of divine retribution, we're now beholden to another deity, namely money, which the rich and powerful use in much the same way to retain control over everybody else.

6. Prophecy Gun

This song's title comes from a Mark Twain quote (and again, I've got Genius to thank for telling me this):

"A man who goes around with a prophecy gun ought never to get discouraged: if he will keep up his heart and fire at everything he sees, he is bound to hit something by and by."

In other words, if you're constantly making prophecies and predictions, odds are you'll get one right sooner or later, just as even the worst marksman will eventually hit their target given enough time and enough bullets. Prophecy Gun is sung from the point of view of an atheist addressing a devout believer; as such, it has a rather derisive, mocking tone:

"You hear the calling
You want to spread the word
Your prophecy gun's crying to be heard"

The second half of the song criticises religion for the way it obstructs progress and excludes certain types of people (homosexuals being an obvious example). "The sky is falling into the world to come" sing the band; our ancestors created God to fill up the big hole in the sky we heard about in Daughters of Cain, but now we've advanced to the point where we need to tear that hole open again in order to continue growing as a species. Fundamental religious types are welcome to "dream of blonde Eschatology" (that is, the Last Judgement and the ultimate, divine triumph of the Aryan race) but the rest of us would like to crack on, please.

7. Computer Canticle 1

Computers are a symbol of technology and the secular, superconnected age in which we live; 'canticle' is another word for a religious song or hymn. Ergo, this short instrumental interlude represents a moment where the opposing forces of science and religion (see Daughters of Cain) are fleetingly united.

Whether it's supposed to be a hymn to computers or a hymn generated by a computer is up for debate, but the clangy, metallic sound that persists throughout Computer Canticle 1's thirty-second duration makes me suspect it's the latter.

8. Divine Simulacrum

Divine Simulacrum examines the idea of a soulmate: that perfect romantic partner who was seemingly made just for you. Of course, if God doesn't exist - and as of Prophecy Gun, it's clear that Yeasayer have decided he doesn't - the idea of somebody being 'made' for somebody else holds no water, not unless we're talking about some kind of bespoke RealDoll. As soon as you stop subscribing to a creationist view of the world, the whole soulmate thing ceases to make any sense; after all, how can someone have been created specifically for someone else if none of us were really 'created' in the first place?

Divine Simulacrum runs gleeful rings around the concept of soulmates, and one of the most interesting things about this song is the way it highlights just how unromantic and dehumanising the idea truly is. The flawless specimen at the centre of this song is described as "simulacrum" and "a mimeograph", as if she's not a person at all but a photocopy of the blueprints for some guy's Perfect Woman. When you suggest that you and your partner were made for each other - and, more broadly, when you suggest that people were actively created at all - you're degrading yourself to the status of a mere product rather than a chaotic, three-dimensional human being.

Author and noted atheist Douglas Adams once famously asked: "Isn't it enough to see that a garden is beautiful without having to believe that there are fairies at the bottom of it too?" In a similar (albeit more roundabout) sort of way, Divine Simulacrum mocks the notion that somebody is your cosmically predetermined soulmate and reminds us that love is beautiful enough without theorising that your partner was somehow manufactured just for you. Or, to put it another way:

"Stop testing your theories, leave me with my lover."

9. Child Prodigy

Exactly 1 minute of harpsichord (?) music, accompanied by the applause of a small but enthusiastic audience throughout. Perhaps intended as a joke about how a child will be applauded whether they're performing Beethoven sonatas or just making a racket. Or, indeed, interrupting an album about science and religion with a forgettable 60-second interlude.

10. Gerson's Whistle

If Amen & Goodbye is a battle between science and religion, then it's been a pretty one-sided fight up until this point, with Yeasayer making it pretty darn evident that they're in science's corner.

Of course, science isn't always used as a force for good. The lethal nerve agents mentioned in I Am Chemistry are one very direct example, but Gerson's Whistle addresses another corruption of science, namely alternative medicine. It's not every day you get a song about unverified cancer treatments, but alternative therapy is a good fit for this album's overall theme, given that it masquerades as science but, like religion, is often based more on blind faith than real evidence.

The 'Gerson' of the title is Max Gerson, the German-born physician who came up with (and lent his name to) Gerson therapy. I'll let Cancer Research UK explain:

"Gerson therapy involves a very specific diet with nutritional supplements. It aims to rid the body of toxins and strengthen the body's immune system. [...] Available scientific evidence does not support any claims that Gerson therapy can treat cancer. In fact, in certain situations Gerson therapy could be very harmful to health. The diet should not be used instead of conventional cancer treatment.

"Gerson therapists believe that people with cancer have too much salt (sodium) in their bodies compared to the amount of potassium. They think that eating large quantities of fruit and vegetables will restore the right balance and cleanse the liver. This would allow the liver to rid the body of cancer cells. Medical research does not support any claims that this therapy can prevent, treat or cure cancer."

So that's the scientific explanation of Gerson therapy and why it's almost certainly bunkum. But instead of simply setting that scientific explanation to music, Yeasayer take a different approach and have some fun with their alternative medicine pisstake, which re-imagines Max Gerson as an annoying, short-tempered flatmate:

"Gerson's always whistling,
Hear him stomping up and down the hall
His vitriol's a missile
And he wields his temper like a wrecking ball
You know one of these days
I'll get out of this place
It's too damn loud
Watching Robert Mitchum films
The volume on 11 in his room
Never sleeps, the bennies keep him vibrating
From midnight until noon"

Mind you, there is a serious undercurrent here: the barely audible opening line about how "no snowflake in an avalanche ever feels responsible at all" points out via metaphor that, while people like Gerson probably don't think they're hurting anyone by recommending coffee enemas in lieu of chemotherapy, the alternative medicine movement is gradually becoming an "avalanche" of misinformation with potentially fatal consequences.

Maybe for their next album, Yeasayer could do a song about being irritated by anti-vaccination people.

11. Uma

We're into the final furlong now. Uma is named after Anand Wilder's young daughter, and it's one of the simplest, sweetest songs on the album, a paean to the experience of being a parent and all the joys and worries that come with it. Have a listen:

If this track has anything to do with Amen & Goodbye's overall thesis, I guess it's in the way it hints that even non-religious people can feel that transcendent feeling that true believers get from their faith. It's just a case of looking in places other than the sky.

12. Cold Night

Cold Night is the album's last proper song, and it's one of my favourites - it has an insistence and a slow-building arrangement that makes for a very strong finish all around. The lyrics are written from the point of view of somebody whose friend (or possibly relative) committed suicide; one year on from that person's death, the narrator is thinking back and wondering if they could have done anything to prevent it:

"It's been one year
Since you turned yourself
Back into dust...
Was there something I could have told you
To carry you through the cold night?"

Now, over the course of Amen & Goodbye, it's shown that science and reason are far better at solving humanity's problems than faith and religion. But science doesn't yet have all the answers, and appeals to reason aren't always fruitful; these tools can't help us to, for example, project the course of a relationship (see Silly Me - it's all well and good asking "where's my head?" but the secret of a successful marriage has little if anything to do with intelligence and aforethought). Neither can scientific methodology help us to talk someone down from a ledge, and that's the crux of Cold Night, whose narrator isn't so much reminiscing about his lost friend as he is trying to work out what he could have said to save them.

And sadly, if there is an answer to that question ("Was there something could have told you?"), then I doubt that either science or religion - the two titans who have been duking it out all the way through Amen & Goodbye - are capable of providing it. Like the failed relationship whose demise Silly Me funkily laments, the poor suicidal person mentioned in Cold Night would likely not have been saved simply with more carefully-chosen words.

All of which serves to demonstrate that the most important, most redeeming thing of all is neither science nor religion but a third, far more nebulous concept: our humanity, and the ways in which we choose to express it.

13. Amen & Goodbye

The title track brings this album to close with a quick wash of heavenly-sounding synths, which effectively serve as the plagal 'aaaa-meeeen' to the whole endeavour. It doesn't really add that much, but here it is anyway because it's a good way to cap off this marathon of a blog post:

Thanks very much for reading - Amen & Goodbye can be purchased from your local record shop or from Yeasayer's online store. It's a really good album that's utterly overflowing with ideas (I've written 3,000+ words today and only just scratched the surface) so I'd definitely recommend checking it out.

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