_I have seen Him in the watch-fires of a hundred circling camps,
They have builded Him an altar in the evening dews and damps;
I can read His righteous sentence by the dim and flaring lamps:
His day is marching on._
Around the tenth anniversary of 9/11, the New Yorker ran a series of short interviews with its staff writers. One of the questions was: “What piece of work to emerge from 9/11 […] has stayed with you the most?” America was born anew that day, its whole cultural flesh remade of smoldering ruins; most we know emerged from the smoke that rose from Lower Manhattan, so emerge is difficult. But it is also liberating. The writers offered answers as filial as Junod’s “Falling Man” and as far-away as Bon Jovi.
I wondered what my answer was. The Dirty Projectors’ Getty Address, an allegorical unfolding of the country’s post-9/11 decline through Don Henley’s centrifugal continental wanderings, wended toward it, purveying spiritual critiques for the era resonant with mine. But it didn’t stay with me as the attacks’ have stayed with all of us or capture all the feelings we’ve submerged: the shock, the helplessness, the anger and pain, the hopelessness, the despair, the hope. This is darkness, but to experience them in art is to be comforted: somebody out there is going through it and knows how you feel. That is why these works are important—as quivering hands.
“I’ll nominate, obliquely, the 2006 TV on the Radio album Return to Cookie Mountain, which somehow maps onto the mood of the Global War on Terror period for me”, Nicolas Lemann said. It felt how he felt. How did he feel? His response to a different question—which single image most still remains—is poetically revealing: “across the meadows of northern New Jersey, two tall gray columns of smoke rising from lower Manhattan, just where the two towers had been.” The shapes he describes reveal the lineaments of the landscape of his heart. In his ears, Cookie Mountain takes that form. Would it in mine? In mind?
“Maps onto the mood” estranges at first, as maps of the world first surprise. The atlas’ cartographic abstraction quickly softens into one’s reasoning mind, where lines make sense as mountains and deep blue as ocean. Lemann’s claim that music can attain cartographic qualities—that Cookie Mountain had—on a map not geographical but emotional, intrigues. This is the conceit of Justin Vernon’s recent album: each song takes its name from a place and impresses the connotative feeling of it, a play on I’m in a good place now. It also recalls Dave Longstreth’s liner notes to the Getty Address, which give papery flesh to the songs’ terse narrative. In one scene, Sacagawea tours Don Henley, the hero, around Gettysburg: “As she leads him around the battlefield, Henley believes they are walking across his own body, and that Sacagawea is unfolding them on a map of his life. All the skirmish sites, all the places where cannons have scarred the hillsides: each is one of his memories.”
Moods are historical, located in time when originated and later summoned. Moods are maps, consuming, extending through the body and body politic, ecologically variegated—forested, frozen over, bedazzled by birds and brooks that lean seawards where they find expression. They show society and each person’s relation to it, ever-changed by both. Epochal moods, the ones rumbling during the “Global War on Terror”, containing eternity but marvelously contingent—in that way not desire, but desire for something, and love, too—change slow enough for art to image them while they last. Works of art, like trees watered by streams and seen from the foothills, bloom from a few square feet—a studio, a mind, an eviscerated city block—into states and minds. In this way is cartographic music to its listeners an object both of solidarity (we are all Americans) and revelation (someone else feels the way I do).
Dear Science, after Cookie Mountain, is moody but deeply interior, no longer cartographic. It doesn’t ride the cresting optimism that had Obama elected a few months later—a misread that had the album top year-end lists. Rather, it enters an after symbolized by his election that exists in the before (the war, President Bush) and that has only moved on by accepting the before’s inevitability. Because the societal after is necessarily a lie, as the War proceeds out of mind, it turns from Cookie Mountain’s mapping to the fate of the individual in this swirl. There is no cartography because there is no public.
Bleakly, the end of these days rests in the lost souls whose only savior is ignorance. This is not true salvation. The chorus of “Golden Age” announces that such an age “is coming around”. What gives the illusion of optimism is the brief suppression of despair by dance: “and all this violence and all this goes away”. It fades as the dance intensifies. In the beginning, the dancers know their “soul is [not] free”; in the end, they think it is. The dance acts as opiate and convinces the dancers to accept their imprisonment. “Joy resounding” comes to the hall where “violence” continues unbridled but unthought.
This is pleasure outside of history. It is so intense that it is no longer outside of history. It is it. We have erected a false tradition of individualism that rejects any actual tradition. We follow catastrophe with catastrophe, because this moment is “beyond history”, because it “calls for it”. We fight wars far from our shores and go so far from ourselves. Having loosed our moorings, we are lost at sea.
Dear Science attacks the “death professor”, an “angry young mannequin”. Social speech is considered vain, bothersome. It’s not against rationalism per se but the possibilities of public reasoning to elevate the situation. It leaves its predecessor’s town squares and street corners and retreats to the bedroom. Whether it advocates or only perceives is unclear. There’s “Lover’s Day”, quite brashly distanced from any social descent: “I’m gonna take you, I’m gonna shake you, I’m gonna make you cum”. The lover wants only pleasure; it’s all he can hope to get.
In Dear Science’s world, resonant with ours, little can be done to halt socio-political decay, so the people turn from the public towards private pleasures, narcissistic, nihilistic, but happy. Those private pleasures might have built toward political reconstruction, but retreating seems to only intensify social decay. Selfishness, justified by social impotence, withering self and public. This is smug post-war, post-partisanship, post-racism. Dear Science is post-war in war, losing the historical conflict and sense of public justice that impel Cookie Mountain. Politics come unhinged, paranoid.
Science recognizes this, but its knowledge is not helpful. It’s disturbing, sending us towards the last redoubt of joy while telling us that place is terrible. Where it maps, that mood has no light which is not sickeningly fluorescent. There are no prophets—only lovers and dancers and friends. It is nihilistic, rending itself into nothing. There is no Messianic light to lead us through the “narrow gates”, no hope for transmission. It is beautiful, though.
Comparing Nine Types of Light’s cover art with its two predecessors’ is revealing: in 2006, a bloody wreath; in 2008, the name of a show illumined on a marquee; in 2011, red light caroming in space. The band’s departure is clear. And where from? Return to Cookie Mountain responds prophetically to terror and loss. It does so so powerfully. Speaking darker than ash, it nonetheless hopes— for reassurance by wisdom through transmission and by history through remembrance—a battle hymn for the republic.
Science’s two best songs lose Cookie Mountain’s prophecy but resurrect it allegorically. Allegories carry messages but they are not expressly political because they are not express. They ask for millions of interpretations and not a single response. “Family Tree” is a true love song—it sustains the not-loving aspects of love—chiming, calling “my love” (she wakes up to the cool light, “the day calls in billows”). But these lovers end “hanging on the shadow of [her] family tree”. They’re hung on an old idea, which is the story of Icarus, like the “Falling Man”, tumbling from the towers, fleeing death, unsure, in search of freedom. He is not forlorn by his fate.
“Stork & Owl” is Dear Science’s other excellent song. There’s dance here, but it’s a “faceless fall”. Two birds watch, and it seems they have taken up the band’s prophecy; it has been displaced into them. They ask, “what’s this dying for?” (It is for love.) They sing: “death’s a door / that love walks through”. (This is how it’s always been.) They guide the falling through his fall: “turn from the fear / of the storms that might be”. There are lessons in both songs, but they’re personal and not apparently epochal, not particularly suited to the terror we feel. We aren’t called to listen.
What were the storms of 2006? Five years of war and Homeland Security; fear on high, and (so) Bush reelected; the bubble bursting. Malaise—the band’s elegant “ennui unbridled”—setting in. Two years have been lost. Cookie Mountain’s mapping music is both apocalyptic in the face of terror and reassuring nonetheless; the nation’s decline is still new, seemingly stoppable. Sung by the prophet, blinded by the debris, from an impossible place to a still-possible audience assembled—the American people. It says walk forward and holds our hands. This is what we want to hear.
There are four aspects of this prophetic process: recognizing despair; being (divinely, historically) inspired to counter it; announcing that inspiration; and conveying it in the form of instruction. (The Biblical cycle is: sin, prophecy, redemption, sin again.) The band is worried about the world. “I Was a Lover” refers explicitly to the American situation, referring to a love “before this war” and contrasts “Dancing Choose”, describing “sleepwalking” that’s not accepted but “is really a crime”. In “Method”, there’s a “storm faced cloud”—like the smoke and soot, falling—“hanging in dystrophy”—like the warped metal, melting. The America the album witnesses is carnaged, disastered, peopled by traumatized bodies, but not safe. The real storm, worsened by the country’s response, is coming. An ominous drone is the backdrop throughout—throbbing, anxious, building still.
The Bible joins societal destruction and prophetic revelation: both come down from God, the latter in the midst of the former, seeking its end. Apocalypse and revelation are twinned. Mount Sinai, where the Law was given, is often a volcano: lightening, thunder, great fires on its summit. Our culture also understands prophets who are “possessed” or “chosen”. Prophetic inspiration is fundamentally violent—to be chosen by God is so traumatic—and in this way akin to the chaos it combats. Cookie Mountain figures this in its selective use of the personal pronoun (far from the retreated “I” in Science) and the two vocalists’ performance. It is only an “I” because it has been vested with an especial power; it represents their prophecy. “Wolf Like Me” shows this most prominently. Prophet as werewolf reveals the act’s ritual, cyclical, and historical nature. “Got a curse I cannot lift”: the curse of the prophet, destined to preach, destined to surrender, to be apart from the community he hopes to save. His “mind’s aflame” from God’s word coming through. He opens his “heart and let[s] it bleed onto yours.”
Its performance is telling. Like “I Was Lover”, “Province”, and “Method” it begins with an invocation, a preverbal niggun, distended o. This is the band’s signature convocation, singing to an audience whose attention is needed. Tunde’s singing is self-completing, spastic with the drums; he closes his eyes, writhes across the stage; his left arm reaches before him all the while, hand open, hitting the air like a preacher, writhing sometimes, too, fighting to get words off chest; he’s always looking up. His timing with the music is sensual, the violence of his prophecy attuned to the despair in the music and at the same time against it, splitting the drone. Kyp’s prophecy is quite different. He is round-bodied, round-bearded; Tunde is lanky, loose. Kyp stands completely still, his eyes rolled back, his mouth’s motion barely visible in those curls, singing carefully. His voice vacillates between highs and lows, refined, haunting. He is entranced, channeling. Their voices and appearance structure the prophetic dualisms of master and mystic, ecstasy and trance, howl and hum. The relationship of end-times and revelation in prophecy is here evident, between voice and voice and voice and music. When one howls the other must hum, and Return to Cookie Mountain demonstrates the prophetic aspect of this relation and the prophet’s perspective on and in the end-times. The way they sing makes as much clear.
Return to Cookie Mountain’s greatest innovation is where they sing from—a place of wisdom beyond the human, of Earth’s molten core, the cumulous heavens. Their wisdom—of how to live and what is right—is known only to God and ancient, mystical traditions. They’ve tapped into it to guide us in this rupture. Most of the past decade’s musical output seems to be typified by a withering self-consciousness. That’s totally fine, but it hardly helps. The perspective of “Blues from Down Here” is absolute, gone, wise: “You might doubt it, / think there’s nothing left for me to do/ but stomp my feet /and shout about it”. From down where? From the deepest depths at which being heard on the surface is still possible, far enough from the carnage to see the world in a divine light but close enough to illuminate it for us. From frustrating depths, where prophecy like Moses’ might be doubted. But to doubt is to have heard, and transmission is paramount. Tunde and Kyp attain this liminal voice right here, in the rubble of September 12th. In history, that is, they ascend; to change it, they return.
There is something beautiful about their voices coming through drone, from the disaster zone where they sing. It is a matter of contrast and survival. Their voices are not lights in a dark room, illuminating cleanly. No—their songs are strewn with murmurs and gasps and illegible rhymes. No—it’s more like the beacon of a lighthouse slung through a thick fog to signal the coming of land. The boat is hardly visible; the land cannot be seen. But the thin light coming through does come through and bespeaks.
There is something so beautiful about teaching. “Lessen your desire”, they sing. You do, because it is sung with the appropriate tenderness and urgency, and because this teaching is what you wanted. It is so rare these days to be told what to do, what is right, but it’s wonderful. Isn’t it? Someone in this mess knows something and cares enough to tell us about it—believes enough that we’ll listen. And what they’re telling us is to stop listening to the false prophets, to calm down, to proceed steadily, readily.
That is the essence of Cookie Mountain’s mapping. Only a prophetic self-distancing can allow them to see the ravished landscape and its past. In its most beautiful, reassuring moments, they return to give us the Ten Commandments for our fractured epoch. Because they are apart, they are not corrupted by fear. “Province” is redemptive: “Hold your heart courageously / as we walk into this dark place. / Stand, steadfast, erect, and see / that love is the province of the brave”; and, later the singular is made plural. “Hold your breath so patiently”. This wisdom is immanent and pertinent. It counters counter-terrorism and counter-culture. It is serene, self-assured.
Benjamin writes that Kafka lived in an era “preparing to do away with the inhabitants of this planet on a considerable scale”. Kafka’s work laments a “sickness of tradition” that allowed for that mood; he seeks to restore “wisdom’s […] haggadic consistency”, against positivistic modernity, to whom the band wrote their not so loving letter, to restore ritual ties not subject to capitalism. Benjamin writes that Kafka “sacrificed truth for the sake of clinging to its transmissibility, its haggadic element”. Kafka had little regard for truth as such, only for its ability to pass down through generations, to escape death. Thus, Benjamin writes—as much of himself, in 1938, Fascism ascendant, two years from death—“there is an infinite amount of hope, but not for us”. He writes: “never lose sight of one thing: it is the purity and beauty of a failure”.
Benjamin writes of a painting of the Angel of History by Klee. Benjamin writes that the Angel is “irresistibly propelled” by a Paradisal storm “into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward”, product of the “one single catastrophe”—history—“piling ruin upon ruin”. When we look at the painting, it is facing us, obstructing Eden. Our journey toward Paradise is endless deterioration. Like Kafka, we are decaying into the future. Those among us undeluded by historical progress, aware to the moment’s putrefaction, pursue not an ideal but the transmission of what we have received. All truth is past; all truth we will ever have, we have now; it must be preserved. The “beauty of a failure” is in that preservation.
The American condition after the attacks is one of profound alienation—from politics, from leaders leaders, from reality, from each other, from that with which we were once intimately familiar and relied on but which changes now, estranges. These things have disappeared. Benjamin writes of Brecht: art’s “truly important thing is to discover the conditions of life. (One might say just as well: to alienate them.)” He wrote in an epoch of alienation, from tradition by science, from others by the city. Recovering the fragments of what has been lost requires their alienation from temporality. This alienation reveals the original alienation and finds historical wisdom. It revolutionarily disrupts modernity to return to an earlier past.
All prophecy is alienated. Cookie Mountain is. The poetry of alienation is the poetry of the past. The drone is history’s ruin. Their words rediscover transmission. “Province” returns: “All your history’s ablaze / try to breathe / as your world disintegrates / just like autumn leaves”. Even though the past has burnt and rotted away, its memory is salvaged in these songs. Democracy’s ashes, dissipating in that September breeze, are caught and preserved in a jar: how they might teach! “All your memories are / as precious as gold”. They reach backwards (inwards)—where is divine light—as far as they can to grab all the history they can and bring it back. Their prophecy is from back there, down there, out there. The “three volume tome of contemporary slang” they compile on “I Was a Lover” is not contemporary at all; the very notion of a tome to preserve a culture is ancient. The slang’s speakers die into it, like the sages. It’s Haggadic, too: tell your children of what was. There is strength there.
The album wants to communicate at all, and then to communicate strength. Like Israel’s prophets, the wisdom it knows it possesses gives it confidence of being heard. Evil has come; deafness has not, yet. There is a speaker who anticipates a listener and a listener who remembers that speaker and words—like this music—that bind them. In even this desperate epoch, transmission resurrects history. And it is history, memory, tradition that will save not us from terror, but those after who are attuned to the wisdom we pass down. Jewish history describes tradition’s resurrective capacity. The Haggadah has sustained us. These songs are wise past imagining. Their orientation toward the transmission of tradition can become the tradition that steadies us against the Great Terror. If we listen, and tell our children, some light might filter through the “narrow gates”.