Man is a giddy thing. (William Shakespeare said that.)

Tonight I chose Mumford and Sons’ Sigh No More as my falling-asleep music.  Bad idea.  These are songs for thinking, some for dancing, but not for falling asleep.  So I’m still awake with this review/listening guide in my head, and I want to write it down before I do fall asleep and forget everything I want to say.

In case you have been living under a rock (in which case you probably need to “Roll Away Your Stone”) and have not yet listened to Mumford and Sons, let me try to encapsulate their style for you: exuberant, theatrical bluegrass with an English Renaissance twist.  (In fact, that’s their genre on iTunes.  That entire phrase.  Just kidding.)  I say “bluegrass” because of the prominence of the banjo and mandolin and because Marcus Mumford’s accent sounds, to my American ears, like the British equivalent of hillbilly.  (Example: In several songs, such as “White Blank Page,” which include non-verbal syllables, he says “Arr,” not “Ahh.”)  The English Renaissance part comes in with the Shakespeare references, found in the album title, the title track (whose lyrics are largely lifted from Much Ado about Nothing), and “Roll Away Your Stone,” where the line “Stars, hide your fires” is wrenched rather startlingly from its original Macbeth context and put to effective use.  Other early modern touches include a song that seems to be about the Black Plague (“Winter Winds,” which contains a rare 21st-century use of the sadly neglected word “pestilence”) and some tunes I can only describe as troubadour-ish (hear, for example, the little melody at the beginning of “Roll Away Your Stone”; it sounds like something they might have danced to in the movie Elizabeth).

My favorite thing about the album is that it subtly tells a story.  There is a clear introduction, conflict, climax, and resolution.  I’ll try to outline the plot here without getting too long-winded.  (Yeah, good luck with that.)  After “Sigh No More,” which is the prologue, we have a solid line-up of hits: “The Cave,” “Winter Winds,” and “Roll Away Your Stone.”  These are songs that you should roll down your car windows and shout along with.  They are also triumphant, almost defiant, declarations of independence (especially “R.A.Y.S.”–I think it’s time to start abbreviating this title).  The series of songs ends with the line, “You have neither reason nor rhyme / With which to take this soul that is so rightfully mine.”  These numbers are life-affirming, but all of this brazen exuberance so early on the album makes us wonder whether it can last.

Alas, it cannot.  With “White Blank Page” and “I Gave You All,” something bad happens. (I mean in the plot, not to the music.)  This bad thing is all the more frightening because it remains undefined.  These are break-up songs, I suppose, but the singer/narrator seems not only to be breaking up with a girlfriend but with himself and even with God.  (Yes, I think the lyrics justify these weighty interpretations.  This is a weighty album.  It’s good when you find a weighty album that you can dance to.)  In the midst of it all, however, there’s still an ember of hope (a key word on this album).  The last words in “White Blank Page” (besides “Arr”) are “Lead me to the truth, and I / Will follow you with my whole life.”

There’s a little bit of a turning point in the next song, “Little Lion Man.”  For one thing, this is the first “upbeat” song since “R.A.Y.S.”  For another, the singer is able to make a confession: “It was not your fault, but mine.”  After the blame-casting of the two previous songs, this admission is refreshing, though perhaps it goes too far in the self-castigating direction.  The song is cathartic, anyway.  It’s another fun one to yell out the window, not least because you get to yell the f-word several times.

The next song, “Timshel,” is a puzzle, like its title.  It’s one of only two songs on the album (the other is “After the Storm”) that stays quiet the whole way through and doesn’t swell to a climax.  In this bittersweet song, someone seems to be dying.  Or giving birth?  Or being baptized?  I don’t know whether the death is literal or symbolic, but the water imagery seems to indicate it will be followed by some sort of rebirth.  The most profound line on the album, in my opinion, is in this song: “Death is at your doorstep / And it will steal your innocence / But it will not steal your substance.”  Someone should preach a sermon about that.  This song ranks, along with some David Crowder songs (“Come Awake” from A Collision and pretty much the entire Give Us Rest album), as one of my favorite songs about death.

Next comes the climax of the whole album: “Thistle and Weeds.”  Unlike some of the earlier numbers, this one doesn’t necessarily catch your attention from the beginning; you might be tempted to skip it, but don’t.  Soon enough you’ll get to a percussive thunderstorm of piano and drums, over which Marcus hollers a line from an earlier song: “I will hold on hope.”  In “The Cave,” it’s easy to mentally skip over this line; here, we get its full significance.  The protagonist of the story is holding on for dear life.  Someone or something is trying to steal his hope, hence the desperation of the vocal.  The song ends quietly, but without much resolution.  We have to wait until the next song to find out what happened.  (N.B. “Thistle and Weeds” contains easily the creepiest line on the album: “Let the dead bury their dead / And they will come out in droves.”)

The next song is “Awake My Soul,” and it might be my favorite, although it’s nearly impossible to choose.  This song doesn’t have the wild abandon of the set of hits at the beginning of the album, but its happiness is richer and deeper because it’s been tempered by sadness.  Yes (spoiler alert), the protagonist has held onto his hope.  As you can probably guess from the title, with this song comes the resurrection (if not bodily, then at least spiritual) that has been foreshadowed in earlier songs, such as “Winter Winds” (“You’ll be happy and wholesome again”) and “Timshel.”  Here, the expression “meet your maker” is not ominous, like it tends to be in common usage, but joyful.

Part bad-ass gunslinger ballad, part jeremiad against greed and oppression, “Dust Bowl Dance” is the only song that seems out of place on this album.  Don’t get me wrong; it’s a good song.  I just think they should have saved it for their next album.  For one thing, it breaks up the flow of the story; there shouldn’t be anything bleak after “Awake My Soul,” and “Dust Bowl Dance” is pretty bleak.  For another, with its distorted guitar and manic cymbals, it’s more rock than (remember?) exuberant, theatrical bluegrass with an English Renaissance twist.  And finally, speaking of the English Renaissance, the Dust Bowl was a 20th-century American event, so it’s weird to encounter it here.  Still, I love the inflection in Marcus’s voice on the last line: “You haven’t met me; I am the only son.”  It should be in a good tragic action movie.

The aptly-named “After the Storm” is the last song and the other quiet song.  It could be anti-climactic, but only if you’re not paying attention.  The guitar is lovely, and the lyrics are rain-drenched with meaning.  It’s not a happily-ever-after ending because it’s not really an ending.  The song uses a lot of future tense: “There will come a time, you’ll see / With no more tears, and love will not break your heart.”  You’re admonished to “Get over your hill and see / What you find there.”

What will we find there?  A second Mumford and Sons album?  Yes, happily, later this year!  But for now, go back and listen to Sigh No More (or “Come out of your cave” and listen to it for the first time).  I’ve told you what I’ve found in this album; now I’d love to know what you find there.

Seeking unlikely hero who’s good with plants

I realize this morning’s post was probably a bit of a snooze for people who haven’t read The Rise of Silas Lapham (even though the novel itself is not a snooze–I’ve been flying through the last hundred pages this afternoon and evening), so this evening I decided to write something more fun, or something that at least nerds like me will consider fun.

I was thinking earlier about the two fictional characters I’m most in love with.  One, Sam Gamgee, I’ve loved since I first read The Lord of the Rings at age 13; the other, Neville Longbottom, I’ve loved for a shorter time but no less fervently (I have a larger-than-life-sized representation of him in glossy cardboard).  The similarities between the two are significant: both appear somewhat incompetent on first impression but turn out to be undeniably capable and even heroic, and both have a knack for botany (or Herbology, in Neville’s case).  Also, now that I think of it, both are intimidated by angry wizards.  But who wouldn’t be?

Based on these ideal figures, I’ve compiled a list for the reference of any guy who may, for whatever reason, want to impress me.

1. I would be really impressed if you could slay something, preferably something that urgently demands to be slain, such as a squadron of orcs or a snake that’s actually a Horcrux.

2. You need to be able to locate plants with magical properties in case I need them in an emergency.  For example, if I am stabbed by a Morgul blade, I will need you to find me some athelas, also known as kingsfoil.  Or, if I need to spend a prolonged period of time underwater (I was thinking about visiting the Titanic site with James Cameron), I will require gillyweed.

3. It would also be nice if you had some skill with regular, non-magical plants, particularly edible plants like po-ta-toes and strawberries (do you remember the taste of strawberries, Mr. Frodo?).  Here Sam has a decided advantage over Neville.  I guess it’s possible that Neville is cultivating a little kitchen garden next to his venomous tentacula plants, but we know for a fact that Sam cooks (unintentional 1960s popular music reference!).  But if we’re talking about advantages and disadvantages, let’s be fair: Neville owns a pair of shoes.  Also, Neville is human; technically, Sam is not.  But this isn’t a competition.

4. If you have a domineering older person in your life, such as your old Gaffer or your Gran, you will always have someone whose good opinion you strive to live up to or whose poor opinion you strive to prove wrong.  This will play a large part in your emerging heroism.

5. I don’t mind if you say lots of ridiculous things; in fact, I will probably find it endearing.  But try to come up with at least one awesome line to deliver at a tense moment.  For example, if someone asks you how your parents are, try saying, “Better, now they’re about to be avenged.”  Or, here’s one that works in all kinds of different situations: “I can’t carry it for you, but I can carry you!”

Well, that should give you something to work with.  If you think you could live up to my exacting standards, and especially if you’ve ever had your Remembrall stolen or gotten excited about seeing an oliphant, please inquire.

Dinner Party, 1885

I borrowed the title of this post from a short story I wrote several years ago.  In my story, I attempted to convey the awkwardness, tension, and even suppressed heartbreak of a gathering where the participants are trying very hard to act as expected of them according to their positions in society.  (In the original version of the story, the characters didn’t have names; they were called “the banker,” “the student,” “the epicure,” etc.)  I’m proud of that story–maybe I’ll share it here sometime–but if you really want to get a sense of the pressure of playing to type, you can either go back to high school, or you can read a novel from the 19th century.  I recommend the latter.

Before this past weekend, I would have recommended reading a Victorian novel, specifically.  I probably would have made some generalization about how the English have always been so much more hung up on class than the Americans.  While this may be broadly true, William Dean Howells’s 1885 novel The Rise of Silas Lapham, which I haven’t quite finished yet, provides a poignant and funny (and poignantly funny) illustration of a particular type of social conflict that is uniquely American: the brash yet self-conscious invasion of Boston’s artistic and intellectual aristocracy by a self-made industry hero and his well-meaning but culturally backward family.  The eponymous mineral paint millionaire finds himself in a disorienting position: The popular newspapers valorize him for exemplifying the American spirit of independence and bootstrap-pulling-up (huh?), but the cultural elite smirk at him even as they find themselves obligated to pay homage to his money by socializing wih his family.  It’s a very 19th-century story, but then again, it’s also depressingly familiar to 21st-century readers.  Heads of corporations are still alternately fawned over, sneered at, praised and blamed for events they probably didn’t bring about.  And America certainly still has an intellectual aristocracy–read The New Yorker.

The narrative voice of Howells’ novel reminds me of George Eliot’s, but without a lot of the philosophical interruptions that can make it hard to slog through parts of Middlemarch.  The main similarity is that both narrators demand our sympathy for all of the characters, no matter how distasteful they’re acting.  At first I was undecided as to whether I was supposed to sympathize with the Laphams, who sometimes come across as vulgar but have an endearing family relationship, or the Coreys, who are often snobbish but take a refreshingly clear and witty view of what’s going on.  Then I came to the conclusion (which I realize could be altered by the ending) that I’m supposed to sympathize with everyone.  This is all the more striking considering the fact that Howells, from what I gather from the editorial notes, hung out with people like the Coreys.  He could have written a completely satirical portrayal of Silas Lapham, even a farce, but instead he wrote a novel of great sensitivity.

Lapham’s oldest daughter is named Penelope, so of course I have a special bond with her.  She’s a particularly interesting character because she is, in a sense, caught between the two worlds.  She reads more than anyone else in her family, and she has a sharp wit that almost, but not quite, would enable her to hold her own in the Coreys’ drawing rooms.  Also, I think Tom Corey is in love with her, even though he’s supposed to be in love with the pretty younger sister, Irene.  I fear no good can come of this, but I can’t wait to find out.

podcast plug

A great podcast you should be listening to if you aren’t already: Does Anyone Really Need to Hear This? The Official Mark Stockslager Podcast. Despite the unpromising title, Mark really does say a lot that’s worth listening to. There’s really no main topic, but a number of themes have emerged over the course of about ten episodes; comedy, movies, The Walking Dead, the Pittsburgh Steelers, and Bruce Springsteen are a few of the dominant ones. Even if you’re not into all of that, you’ll enjoy Mark’s self-deprecating humor, random vocal impressions, and refreshingly unorthodox point of view on a few of those topics.

You can subscribe or listen to individual episodes for free at the iTunes store. I recommend that you subscribe, but if you don’t have time to listen to them all right now, listen to tonight’s episode. Yes, this is shameless self-promotion–I guest-starred on tonight’s show. Mark and I reveal our top ten movie scores and top five main movie themes (musical themes, that is), plus a lot of honorable mentions.

Another Penelope

After grading a student’s paper about Tennyson’s poem “Ulysses,” I thought it would be nice to give a shout-out to another great Penelope, she of the never-ending tapestry in Homer’s Odyssey.

I’ve never done any research on critical responses to the Odyssey, but I’m guessing that Penelope is not a favorite character among feminist theorists, since she’s gone down in history for nothing more than being faithful to her husband, who’s out there having adventures with the boys and spending time with gorgeous sea witches.  But Penelope isn’t a brainwashed, bovinely loyal house-slave.  She’s smart, for one thing–note the brilliant weaving idea.  And her faithfulness to Odysseus is perfectly rational.  After all, the men she’s trying to fend off are coarse-talking, booze-swilling idiots who can’t even string a bow, let alone shoot an arrow straight.  I suppose she could give up men entirely and go off on adventures of her own, but she has a good reason for staying home: the man she’s waiting for is worthy of a brave, intelligent woman.  Odysseus is clever (he came up with the Trojan horse plot), resourceful (having survived Circe, Calypso, Charibdys, the Cyclops, and other obstacles, not all of which begin with C), and pretty obviously in love with his wife.  He’s clearly worth waiting for.  So in Penelope’s case, faithfulness and personal fulfillment go hand in hand.  They aren’t always mutually exclusive, something feminist theorists (at least of the knee-jerk variety) seem unwilling to understand.

Penelope is such a great character that Tennyson’s easily overlooked reference to her in “Ulysses” is insulting.  Telemachus, the son, gets a couple of lines, but Penelope only gets three words: “an aged wife.”  Come on, man!  Not even her name?  In general, I love Tennyson’s stirring and wistful interpretation of Odysseus’s last great speech, but the treatment of Penelope is disappointing.  Better for her not to be mentioned at all than for her significance to be tossed aside in such a demeaning way.

Well, if Tennyson won’t give Penelope the respect she deserves, I will.  Penelope Clearwater salutes you, Penelope of Ithaca.