thanatos and eros
June 29, 2008
By "Whit Waltman" (Santa Barbara, CA)
Thanatos and Eros pull at each other, not only on the world stage but in our individual minds. The classical pair are the points of a dilemma that few of us know how to bear or integrate. Yet we feel the hand of each in the secret recesses of our motives and the aftermath of our actions. Both have their pleasures, their perversions, their obscenity. Both have fireworks. Julie Christensen, with her talented supporting musicians and writers, has crafted an up-to-date, artistically mature, poetic, and urgent edition of that genre of perennial necessity: the anti-war album. The pleasures of this music are deep, and this album deserves a careful listening to follow its circuit and experience its facets. Here are wonderfully inventive originals, and an intriguing sequence of covers from Elvis Costello, Randy Newman, David Byrne and Joni Mitchell. You get the sense this project has deep roots, aspects gestating for as long as Julie has been singing. Add to that the pleasure of the clear recording, balanced mixing, and the solidity of Christensen stalwarts like Tom Lackner, Joe Woodard and Tom Buckner (Headless Household), and Karen Hammack.
This is not a 20-something's "Hell no! We won't go!" sort of protest album. To be sure, there is edgy anger here, but there is also poignancy, fantasy, despair, grief, madness. There is life. There is all the conviction and presence one would expect of the mother of a 15 year old son whose country is wastefully and foolishly at war. The gorgeous and heart-breaking ballad near the beginning, "Something Pretty", voices a sanity-clinging resolve to "make something pretty" when the world is crashing down in madness around one. When one is too small to speak truth to power, or have an effect, one can at least grace that smallness in dignity, and so stage a personal revolt against despair. Costello's "Shipbuilding" explores the euphemisms and disguised purposes of defense contractors in small town USA. "Boy in Pain" faces up to PTSS, and centers on a Seymour Hersh quotation from a soldier's mother, "I gave you a good boy, and you sent me back - a murderer!" Byrne's "Psycho Killer" is newly rendered here with quiet passion and dreamy slowness. In the context of the album, one is reminded that all war is serial killing. And one is reminded, too, of the thanatos/eros conflict of the serial killer. But that theme is best covered in the belligerent, caustic and raunchy title tune, "Where The Fireworks Are." This gutsy rocker voices the angry indignation of the Feminine (I kept thinking of Kali - the fierce mother-goddess) over the hypocrisy of upholding fertility and bounty through the death-dealing of war. In a page right out of Freud, this song suggests that men who build the war machine are foolishly seeking compensation for their love failures. They go for the kaboom of bombs because they have failed to find where the true fireworks are - "between my thighs." No sooner had I been thinking about this song, then I came across this passage from psychedelic missionary Myron J. Stolaroff:
"I now knew that this is what we all hungered for, were desperate for. It is the lack of it that drives us into all sorts of excesses. Desperately wanting it, but pretending it is not important, we strive for mastery, for status, to be powerful, to control, to fight wars -- anything but admit our crying need for the comfort of this feminine essence."
If "Where The Fireworks Are" puns of c(o)unt(ry), the most developed pun on the album comes in the other upbeat kicker "Rapture Index = 0". The title refers to the indicator, in evangelical circles (with sadly side-tracked theology) of the coming End Times. The song is a preachy warning (complete with choir and martial snare drum) to Dubya (implied) to keep politics and theology apart. `Rapture index' becomes "wrapped yer index finger on the trigger" -- a tongue-in-cheek satire that is, at the same time, a serious call for the constitutional separation of church and state. There are many other great moments on this album, like Julie's tribute to Joni Mitchell with "Woodstock" (with some grinding-good guitar licks by JW), the poetically brief and understated "She Melted" (where the listener feels as cut short as the life lamented), and the affirmative ending "One More Song." If Christensen intones hope in the end, it isn't because she has purchased it cheaply, or sings it only from the neck up. Julie Christensen has done something more than `make something pretty' with this album. She has made something beautiful. Not the light beauty of surfaces and smiles and flowers and noon, but the dark beauty of depth, heart, grief and longing. If her dreams about a world without war flash through her mind (as she confesses) like meteors, we should be glad that this one hit ground and made a sound for the rest of us.