The only girl I've ever loved was born with roses in her eyes

One evening, at the height of the irony epidemic of the 1990s, I was channel-surfing late at night and turned to the Cartoon Network.  There I saw, for the first time, an episode of Space Ghost Coast to Coast, in which the original animation for Alex Toth's incredibly lame Saturday-morning superhero cartoon from 1969 was reworked into a late-night talk show.  It was a parody that was beyond parody.  It was so saturated with irony that it was practically impossible to parse. 

I have never been so in tune with the Zeitgeist as I was in that moment.  I realized that this moment, the one that I was watching, was literally the high-water mark of irony.  Irony could rise no farther.  From this point on, it would only recede.  It was time for something else.  And I was right.

What came next was a record that begins with the ringing of an acoustic guitar that's been so close-miced and amplified that it will move the fillings in your teeth.  It ends with an unspoken farewell.  The last notes having died into silence, you hear the guitar set heel-first on the floor and then footsteps walking away from the mic, and then it's over.  

I don't think Jeff Mangum knew, in that moment, that he was done for good.  I think he thought he was done recording the last song on the record.  But of the many spooky things on the record, the spookiest is that it ends with the songwriter walking away.  He hasn't recorded another song in nearly twenty-three years.

i was in a record store one afternoon in 1998 when I first heard that voice.  "I am listening to hear where you are," it cried out, twice, with spooky clarity and an intensity that gave me chills.  I had no idea what I was hearing, or why the guitar was so very loud and the voice was even louder, or why everyone else seemed to be going about their business as though nothing was happening.  

In The Aeroplane Over The Sea, when I finally bought it, was a record I fell into.  I remember hearing the uilleann pipes come in over the untitled instrumental track and laughing out loud at the sheer, over-the-top absurdity of the sound.  I remember how utterly disquieting it was to hear someone open a song with the line "I love you, Jesus Christ."  I burrowed into the furious babble of lyrics trying to figure out how this thought segued into "I will spit until I learn how to speak."  I remember how incredibly annoying I first found the preposterous amount of distortion on the bass.

(Can it be that you haven't heard it?  It's here.)

It took me years to fully grasp it, and by then I was the one being grasped.  It has never let me go.  It's a record that you can sink into and learn entire.  Every squeak of a finger against the strings.  Every swell of an accordion.  Scott Spillane yelling, in astonishment, "Holy shit!"

The needle that sings in your heart.  We would live and learn what each others' bodies were for.  When her spirit left her body how it split the sun.  Says it was good to be alive, but now he rides a comet's flame.  The father made fetuses with flesh-licking ladies.  We will take off our clothes and we'll be placing fingers in the notches of your spine.  The dogs dissolve and drain away.  The world it goes and all awaits the day we are awaiting.

Every line of this record seems, to use Brian Eno's phrase, as if it's about to mean something.  The world of this record is a two-headed boy in a jar, sisters freezing to death in the forest, a girl falling from the sky, tomatoes and radio wires, thunderous sparks from the dark of the stadium.  And grief.

There is so much grief in this record.  All the wildness, the rococo orchestration, the headbanging that comes out of nowhere, the too-weird-to-even-be-hipsters playing the musical saw and trombones, the cheeriness that comes from literally every song on the record being in C major, the bright and ringing production, all of that pulls against the terrible undercurrent of grief that's present everywhere.  "In my dreams you're alive and you're crying," he sings.  "I'm still wanting your face on my cheek."

The greatness of this work of art is that it apprehends the unnameable and refuses to diminish it.  Here is an artist who looks into the void and doesn't describe what he sees.  All of the work's hallucinatory weirdness hints at what's in there, the way the spiraling trails in cloud chambers reveal traits of elementary particles to us.  "Can't believe how strange it is to be anything at all."

And yet:  The calmest line on the record, sung six minutes into "Oh Comely," set off from the rest of the song with an artificially-sustained vocal note like an em-dash sets off a new sentence, almost flat in affect when compared with the rest of the singing you've heard, is:  "I know they buried her body with others, her mother and sister and five hundred families."

Yesterday, the New York Times op-ed page carried a breezy little editorial by a guy named Tom Buchanan - no, wait, it's Bret Stephens - that suggested there might be some special in-dwelling, inherited aspect of the Ashkenazi Jews that makes them so smart.  (I feel like the word he was reaching for was "crafty.")  Today's paper carries a fantastically hard-to-parse Editor's Note that tries to walk back what was said without, in any way, taking issue with it.  You would think "eugenics is bad" would be an uncontroversial stance for the newspaper of record to take.  Wouldn't you?

This is where we are.  We can see where we are going.  Years from now, those of us who were spared will be looking to hide, or at least minimize, our role in it.  But we won't be able to say we didn't know it was coming.  "We didn't know what to do" will be the best justification we can come up with.

And here's where your mother sleeps.  And here is the room where your brothers were born.  Indentations in the sheets where their bodies once moved but don't move anymore.  

And it's so sad to see the world agree that they'd rather see their faces filled with flies.


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