Songs of the Week 03/31/2023

WHEN I WAS DONE DYING | Dan Deacon One of my favorite recent memories of coming home from college was opening the door to find my mom drawing a harebrained conspiracy map connecting every character in Netflix’s time-traveling murder mystery, Dark. Pitifully, I’m only four episodes into Dark as of writing this, but I’ve willingly spoiled many of its needle-drops. Whoever was in charge of its soundtrack absolutely killed it (and it’s weird that that’s a way of saying good job, isn’t it?). It follows, then, that I should probably be patient and only write about Dan Deacon’s triumphant and transcendental “When I Was Done Dying” once I’ve actually seen it in the show, but in the spirit of, um, time travel, I’m going to pretend I don’t understand the term “delayed gratification.” If it wasn’t apparent from the title, “When I Was Done Dying” is a psychedelic tour-de-force, evoking extra-dimensionality from the start with its nervous strumming layered over sweeping, doppler horns. This undulating rhythm at once creates both cosmic scale in the white space and texture in the scratchy, earthy imperfections of its instrumentation. Its rambled lyrics are equally epiphanic, spewing forth poetry line after line. This atmosphere is so overwhelming that I only caught snippets of the lyrics for the first few listens, but there are many gems to be unearthed between each fleeting breath. It was only yesterday that I was finally floored by perhaps the best stanza of the song:

“And the Earth looked at me and said ‘wasn’t that fun?’ / And I replied ‘I’m sorry if I hurt anyone’ / And without even thinking cast me into space / But before she did that she wiped off my own face / She said better luck next time don’t worry so much / Without ears I couldn’t hear I could just feel the touch / As I fell asleep softly at the edge of a cave / But I should have gone deeper, but I’m not so brave”

I’m ashamed to admit that for many years, I felt that the influence of psychedelics on writing as emotional as this cheapened the final product. I’ve realized now that I’m critical of not the writing itself, but the way in which it’s received—the way so many respond to abstract or dreamlike art by dismissing it as little more than a weird trip. To me, this is just demeaning, and a reductive perspective on the human imagination. I don’t mean to sound entitled here, but when I try to make surreal or imagistic art, I put so much thought and effort into tapping into my imagination—into finding archetypal meaning in the images I’m invoking—and to experience that and only say “lol, don’t do drugs kids” feels like a refusal to dive into the creative thinking every one of us is born with. In any case, songs like “When I Was Done Dying” and the deeply emotional journey it describes certainly aren’t cheating because they came from a trip—in Deacon’s case, I like to believe this piece and its discoveries has always existed within him, and the transcendental experience is just what brought him to it. No matter how it came about, this religious rebirth moves something deep within me, too, and that’s what’s worth it.

While there are some songs self-contained songs that I think would be ruined paired with visuals, such an imagistic piece is ripe for animation. Before I’d known anything else about it, “When I Was Done Dying” was already conjuring a scene in my head. To me, it’s a perfect fit for claymation—there’s just something in the stuttering strings and raining marimba that sounds like descending through the layers of strata beneath the soil, passing flint and fossils, bugs and bedrock. Mostly, I think it would be fun if cartoony Earthworms curled in to sing the high parts. As it turns out, Adult Swim beat me to the punch eight years ago with their nine-animator music video. Even though my idea is unquestionably better, I have to admit, this one is bursting at the seams with neon creativity that couldn’t fit the song any better. It’s such an imaginative firework of art that it can be overstimulating to experience, and I almost feel like I missed something in all the ruckus, but if that ain’t what “When I Was Done Dying” is about…

Pairs Well With:Of Course” (Jane’s Addiction), “Judy Garland” (Frog) “You’ll Be Bright (Invocation Part 1)” (Cloud Cult)

(YOU) ON MY ARM | Leith Ross I’ll admit it: fuzzy dreampop and singer-songwriter are equally outside my wheelhouse, but as with my boygenius and Adrianne Lenker/Buck Meek ventures, there are plenty of exceptions—especially when they’re recommended by my girlfriend. In this case, discovering Leith Ross’s “(You) On My Arm” came as more of an accident—once I’d heard the chorus in my girlfriend’s car, I couldn’t get it out of my head. While that’s not always a signifier of truly good pop (looking at you, “Candy Cane Lane“), I give a lot of weight to irresistible hooks because of their deceptive simplicity. I’m no seasoned songwriter, but I’d imagine crafting a riff that’s instantly charming, widely applicable, and distinct from all of the other sticky riffs out there is an oft-underestimated puzzle. Ross is clearly onto something here, but as counterintuitive as it might seem, I don’t think I’d like “(You) On My Arm” half as much if it were more polished. This might sound like a backhanded compliment, but I genuinely believe that its human asymmetries add so much endearing character to this song, much like early Car Seat Headrest or Snail Mail. There’s a lot of richness in Ross’s voice, but what makes it instantly identifiable to me is the—this keeps sounding mean, doesn’t it?—bubble in her throat. It’s the sort of thing many might label an imperfection, but when her C’s catch ever so slightly, it sounds to me as if her words are sung from the heart. While this first reminded me of The West Coast Pop Art Experimental Band (you have to say the whole thing)’s “I Won’t Hurt You,” but after some thought, a much closer comparison would be the bouncy, beeping, booping pop of Dafna, who actually signed my friend and I’s smoke detector at a show.

Thanks, Dafna. You’re a real one.

Whatever quality makes these sounds so catchy bleeds into Ross’s lyrics as well. My girlfriend and I were initially sort of puzzled by the almost-enjambed curtness of the chorus—the line “I wanna be,” while grammatically correct, feels so clipped that it almost sounds to me the way “spa” sounds to Charlie Kelly.

Maybe I’ve also had too much airplane glue, but the titular line “I’d be better armed / If you agreed to take it” threw me for a loop in its jaggedness. I’ve since come to really like it, though—being a double meaning twisting two well-known phrases, this chorus feels tailor-made to link synapses like everything else in this piece. This one is definitely a keeper for me, and it certainly won’t have left my brain by the time next week rolls around.

Pairs Well With:Let U Go” (Dafna), “Thinning” (Snail Mail), “I Won’t Hurt You” (The West Coast Pop Art Experimental Band)

WINTER’S EVE | Kishi Bashi From the pop lights show of “Unicorns Die When You Leave” to the sorrowful, string masterpiece of “I Am the Antichrist to You,” the last words I’d use to describe Kishi Bashi’s music are “emotionally stable.” It’s not him, it’s me—or maybe it’s both—but the fact that I’m always swept away by his music is a testament to his artistic merit. Even so, the most surprising thing about his latest single, “Winter’s Eve,” is its serenity. When my mom first sent Winter’s Eve my way, I had to take a deep breath and expect to have my heart thrashed around in some way or another, but for its entire duration, all I felt was cozy calm. Like the other meditation on winter we’ve recently reviewed, Kate Bush’s 50 Words for Snow (not the yeti part), there’s a soft, December stillness to this piece explored through an unorthodox perspective. Perspective is, in fact, confirmed by Kishi Bashi himself to be the this song’s theme. Written for a short documentary filmed in Churchill, Manitoba, “Winter’s Eve” offers the inverted perspective of a polar bear, whose connotations towards winter must be totally flipped from our own. Where we associate winter with lifelessness and torpor, Polar Bears, which depend on awakening from their hibernation to a frozen ocean, must associate it with vitality; with new food and new life. I’m essentially paraphrasing Kishi Bashi’s own statement on Bandcamp, which is far more insightful (and original), so I’d highly recommend reading his statement on the state of polar bears in the wake of climate catastrophe—while you’re there, you can purchase the “Winter’s Eve” single for just $2. I’m not sponsored, but KB (or KB), if you’re reading this…

Also, shoutout to the power couple of musician Kishi Bashi and environmental philosopher Dr. Kimberley Dill, who are currently engaged. Carry us into the future, godspeed, etc.

Pairs Well With:Seasons” (Chris Cornell), “Small Blue Thing” (Suzanne Vega), “Misty” (Kate Bush)

EAT YOUR YOUNG | Hozier This one’s also a little outside my wheelhouse, but if I’m being direct… Hozier? Andrew Hozier Byrne? Can I call you Andy? No? Well, this one’s for you, Andy. I heard the new EP. Love that title. Very raw, very elemental, very on brand. It really earns the strings, and you know I’m a sucker for that. I wonder how it’s gonna be done live? Oh, uh, speaking of which, how come your nosebleed tickets are selling for hundreds right now, huh buddy? You wanna explain that? How about we eat the rich instead? Just a thought. This is a big PR blunder, but ic can be fixed. Shoot me a text if you have any other consulting concerns.

Pairs Well With: “Sunlight” (Hozier), “Heads We’re Dancing” (Kate Bush), “Coquet Coquette” (Of Montreal)

ME AND THE DEVIL | Soap&Skin covering Robert Johnson Finally, we’re closing out with not only a second Dark song (which, being from the future, I actually HAVE seen the episode it’s in, chew on that!), but also a song that, much like Shakey Graves’s rendition of “O Death” last week, has its roots almost a century in the past. Despite having a fantastic soundtrack to work with, I was afraid Dark‘s needle drops would never hit that Noah-Hawley-Edgar-Wright-Quentin-Tarantino drop-dead sweet spot (I’m bulking on hyphens this week), but as with many aspects of the show, episode 5 set the bar higher than ever. Perhaps it was the sudden slap of stone-cold cruelty that shall remain unspoken for anyone else as far behind as I am, but “Me and the Devil” steals the scene as soon as it seeps in. There’s a special brand of mournful amidst this cold, European bleakness, with strings tearing against tiptoeing percussion. Ironically, this mournfulness stems directly from the sweltering, American South, first sung by none other than Robert Johnson, the guitarist who sold his soul to the devil and fathered blues and rock n’ roll with just twenty-seven songs. I’ve always loved the crunchiness of the blues, but especially in older recordings, its deeply somber tone is almost stifling—so much so that it carries over into Soap&Skin’s cover some 90 years later. Unlike so many other songs I’ve described as mournful, though, I seriously can’t get enough of this cover. It’s an epipen of October, an antidote for when things feel too brown and lifeless, all death and no spookiness. And when it comes to spooky, Soap&Skin wears it like a crown, absolutely embodying this eerie specter like nobody I’ve heard since Chelsea Wolfe. With her pounding piano and ragged vocals, this cover goes beyond depressing into an exciting sort of chilling—the sort that makes me want to skip to school. Don’t tell anyone, though.

While we’re on don’ts, though, as good as all of this spookiness can be, there’s a hard line between spooky and outright scary, and Soap&Skin’s single “Sugarbread” barrels over it with reckless abandon. I accidentally sent my girlfriend that song instead of this one, and I still feel bad for the traumatizing experience that follows. Like, holy nutsack. You ever hear a song that requires a trigger warning? This is one of those. Like that scene in The Batman where Selina plays the recording of her best friend screaming as she’s kidnapped and murdered, there’s a certain shift I felt in my stomach that made me think, “hmmm, I’m not having fun anymore.” Upon another listen… I hate to say that I don’t hate it? In fact, I actually think I like it? Skinny Puppy really numbs a man to the horrors of the world. Maybe we’ll talk about it later. Once you get through the anguished wailing for the first minute or so, it becomes pretty normal, but it’s not the sort of song that sits well if you’re home alone, or going for a nighttime jog. Either way, it’s a tone shift, and one that doesn’t pair well. If you are on the hunt for new pairings, let me instead direct you to the uncomfortably kinky (but delightfully nonsensical if you don’t think about it) “Mr. Alphabet Says” by none other than The Glove, a collaboration between Robert Smith of The Cure and Budgie of Siouxsie and the Banshees. I’m always so excited when songs slot together like puzzle pieces, especially if they’re both creepy treats like these. Check them out!

Pairs Well With:Goodbye (with Soap & Skin)” (Apparat), “Mr. Alphabet Says” (The Glove), “Brostinn Strengur” (Lay Low)

Credit to the Kirkland Museum

Hey, speaking of spooky things and outright scary things, how about “Mechanism of a Capitalist” by Julio deDiego? This piece’s title paired with its vampiric contents got a laugh out of me, but setting aside the trademark, zoomer, blasé nihilism that gets less funny every day (sorry, guys), there’s a lot to love here. I’m sure every art critic will simultaneously crinkle their noses in distaste the moment I call this piece “cartoony,” but I can’t stress enough what a compliment that is. I love this style and its expressiveness—its bulging eyes, lolling tongues, toothy grins, and ghostly figures. More than any other style, this piece feels so animated and dynamic, and the wolf-mannequin’s face will always be memorable to me.




    • maxtodd · March 31

      Still somewhere in my old apartment

  2. sabinaespinet · April 2

    Since my track record is sketchy, (still trying to make up for that zombie corgi short) I’m glad I didn’t unintentionally traumatize you more with the Dark songs or Winter’s Eve.

    Also, that painting makes me think of the cover of Olive the Other Reindeer gone wrong.

    • maxtodd · April 2

      The zombie corgi thing was one time!! Don’t worry!

  3. Michael Bos · April 3

    I’m an outspoken advocate for the psychedelic experience. The most powerful thing they can do is show you yourself in relation to everything else and that can be a terrifying experience for people immersed in a culture of distraction and denial. Many people cite their psychedelic trips as some of their life’s most memorable, meaningful moments, myself included. It’s almost useless to try and verbally describe what it’s like, because so much of it is an internal feeling. Once you’ve had the experience though, it stays with you. You don’t need to drop acid or eat mushrooms to get the experience, either – I’ve gotten there through meditation, exercise, or even walking around on a nice day. Once you learn to recognize it, you’ll experience it everywhere.
    I recommend Michael Pollan’s book “How to Change Your Mind” for an even-handed look at the topic.

    • maxtodd · April 3

      “How to Change Your Mind” has been on my list for a while! Honestly I don’t think I trust myself to try it but I totally agree, it seems like a really meaningful and spiritual experience and I have nothing against it. I think people just dismiss anything meaningful that comes of it as just some trippy shit and then refuse to engage with it any further when the word “psychedelic” comes into things, you know? I have no problem with psychedelics, just with a refusal of the meaning behind them.

      • Michael Bos · April 3

        Jimi Hendrix – “Are you Experienced?”
        “Not necessarily stoned /
        but beautiful”

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