BRAND NEW: THE DEVIL AND GOD ARE RAGING INSIDE ME (2006)
1) Sowing Season (Yeah); 2) Millstone; 3) Jesus Christ; 4) Degausser; 5) Limousine; 6) You Won't Know; 7) Welcome To Bangkok; 8) Not The Sun; 9) Luca; 10) Untitled; 11) Archers; 12) Handcuffs.
Emotional pain. It's actually a real thing, and most of us have probably experienced it — but the more I listen to 21st century music that got critical acclaim for allegedly bottling and conveying waves of emotional pain to the appreciative audience, the more I get the feeling — and yes, maybe I am alone on this, but I don't care — the feeling that somehow, at some elusive moment in time, musicians have simply lost the ability to express their emotional pain in music in a convincing manner. Horribly, it even leads me to suspect that they might have lost the ability to feel emotional pain like a perfectly ordinary, reasonable, sensitive human being could feel emotional pain. Is it stupid on my part? George Harrison, Roger Waters, Robert Smith, Michael Stipe, Aimee Mann, Beth Gibbons — they feel and convey emotional pain. But I have not yet felt a single properly bleeding heart from anyone whose musical career would be separated by more than two thousand years from the alleged birth of the greatest emotional sufferer of 'em all (did that sound grossly pathetic? I thought it sounded grossly pathetic).
Case study: The Devil And God Are Raging Inside Me, a pretentious title that suggests bracing yourself as you push play — surely, with a statement like this, you can expect to be propelled head forward into the scary turbulence of the Greatest Emotional Drama ever. The light and the dark! The sin and the redemption! The suffering and the deliverance! The crime and the punishment! Jesse Lacey has grown up, matured, became initiated into the real serious issues of this world, and this is his take on the grim plight of the human race. The stakes are higher than ever before, and please expect a complete refund if you do not walk away from this experience a deeply changed man, with your whole life to rethink and brand new goals and promises to be made.
Unquestionably, in terms of overall development this album rises high above Your Favorite Weapon, and corrects some of the problems of Déjà Entendu. It is occasionally intriguing, far from always predictable, and sufficiently restrained in that the band does not come across as a bunch of annoying poseurs when you are forced to inhale their tragic psychologism. But the main issue remains the same: they just do not know. That is, according to my perspective: you will, of course, find plenty of dissenting opinions on how they totally blew the mind of some listener or other. I just wonder, in each such case, where and how exactly our emotional receptors have parted ways — finding it unimaginable that one could, for instance, experience the same kind of strong, heartfelt response for this album as one could for, say, The Cure's Disintegration.
So let us take a look at the singles first. ʽSowing Season (Yeah)ʼ, opening with a rather tedious minute-long section of overlapping phone chat recordings, is a nicely constructed alt-rock track that teaches us about the difficulties of building your life anew after it had been blown to pieces by some unimaginably horrific experiences. But the fact that Jesse Lacey did not, in fact, have all his relatives killed off in World War Two does not bother me as much as the fact that the transition from the quiet verse section into the bombastic-climactic chorus simply does not have the (obviously intended) cathartic effect. The guitar riff that dominates the chorus is well constructed, but it is more math-rockish than emotionally involving, and the «wild» "yeah yeah"s that accompany it are puny and superficial compared to, say, Kurt Cobain's — now there was a guy who could crack a good "yeaaaaah" in such a way that you'd want to quickly call 911 to his place. Lacey's "yeah"s, on the other hand, can't help implying that... well, he'll get over it eventually.
The second single was ʽJesus Christʼ — and, well, even with atheism on a steady rise everywhere, you'd still want to think that choosing such a title imposes certain artistic obligations. And it is actually a good song — until they start to scream, that is. The little ringing guitar pattern, unoriginal as it is, can mesmerize you a little with its steadiness, and the quiet atmosphere of the music goes very well with Jesse's tense, confessional singing, and there is a pretty restrained guitar solo, and the lyrics, dealing with insanity, death, and the afterlife, are intelligent... but then they just can't handle that crescendo — they just begin to scream, and it gets ugly without getting scary, and by the time they chant "we all got wood and nails and we turn out hate in factories", I have stopped being interested in the song. So sad, it started out so well.
On the non-singles material, they sometimes do better: top prize here goes to the nearly eight-minute epic ʽLimousineʼ, where the much lengthier crescendo fortunately succeeds — after a few rather mediocre minutes, they grasp a good groove, settle into a nice melancholic tonality, and work it out by adding layer after layer of guitars, keyboards, and even strings, rather than simply resorting to more of that ugly screaming. The "I love you so much / But do me a favor, baby, don't reply" bit and its development shows that they are at least randomly capable of gold mining, because there is romanticism here and tragedy and determination, regardless of whatever the actual message might be (actually, the song is about the accidental murder of a 7-year girl by a drunk driver), and plenty of subtlety and accuracy and thoroughness of arrangement. If it weren't for moments like these, the tables would have turned completely against the band — but the likes of ʽLimousineʼ show that they do have to be taken seriously, and that they do mature further and further with each new record. And that makes the numerous flaws of Devil And God even more infuriating against this background.
The hooky numbers, for instance, still tend to be spoiled by overemoting: thus, ʽNot The Sunʼ is designed as a somewhat «apocalyptic» rocker (its spirited intro, echoey production, and overall tone remind me, for some reason, of Hendrix's ʽAll Along The Watchtowerʼ) and even has some excellent guitar parts and a frantically tight rhythm section, but there's just too much emphasis on screaming again — an area in which Lacey is rarely convincing. ʽDegausserʼ sounds like a bad parody on Arcade Fire, replete with droning guitars, anthemic, but lackluster choir vocals, and soulful echoes — until the screaming comes in and drowns out all the associations in head-splitting, but still boring loudness. And so on, and on, and on.
Honestly speaking, I would really like to love this album. At least, unlike quite a few other lazy hipsters who think that an understanding of «soul» excuses you from understanding the obsolete notion of «work», these guys are clearly trying — exploring many more types of textures here than they used to, writing complex lyrics that tend to avoid clichés, even displaying a healthy penchant for self-irony ("You're shouting so loud, you barely joyous broken thing / You're a voice that never sings" must be a self-reference, right?). It's just that almost everywhere they stop just one or two important steps away from greatness. Why not flesh out the hooks more? Why not work out the guitar figures better? Why not refrain from screaming in favor of a more subtle approach (especially if they are capable of subtlety)? Is it because they are unable to have feelings that can be transposed to such kinds of hooks, or do they just not know how to transpose?
In the end, no matter how much I listen, the only thing that stays with me is the repetitive, mildly hypnotizing coda to ʽLimousineʼ, and I have but to constatate that the ambitiousness, although it does not destroy the record as a whole, does not pay off. I cannot agree that the Devil and God are raging anywhere inside this album — at best, they may have sent a couple of their lesser deputies. Nice level of cultural erudition, but that's hardly sufficient foundation for an emotional masterpiece. Then again, who knows, maybe it's just my grumpy bias speaking up.