Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Guided Tour of Binaural: Sleight of Hand

by stip

Sleight of Hand

Although far from my favorite song on this record, Sleight of Hand might be the most important, the most archetypal, the one that cuts right to the heart of what this record is about. The song is cold, lonely, and would be hopeless if it wasn’t so tired. Sleight of Hand is what happens to the character in I’m Open if he forgot to make time to dream for himself, or the character in Small Town without her epiphany that it’s not too late to begin again. Sleight of Hand tells us the story of a man trapped in the same dull, repetitive, dark, monochromatic life devoid of color and light. Whatever hopes, dreams, plans, and ambitions got lost in the daily grind of living—the hours, days, years lost to the commute, the meaningless work, the routines necessary to fill the empty hours. He is alive, but feels absolutely nothing, so is he? You get the sense that this is a character who had spent some time running away from himself, trying to escape who he was and who he is, and he was ultimately too successful. In his struggle for peace, his fear of engagement, his fear of himself, he lost himself—all that’s left is a shell, devoid of substance, meaning. Sleight of Hand is American Beauty without its second chances.

There’s still a tiny spark left—the part of him that remembers who he was, what he wanted out of life, what he was capable of doing. But it is so small, so insignificant. The listener is left with the sense that he might actually have been better off without remembering it. He’d still be empty, but he wouldn’t be haunted in the same way

There is a really powerful ambiguity in the climax of the song. There’s no redemption here. He waves goodbye to the spark—the part of himself that survived in the void that became his life, but we don’t know if this is because he chooses to kill himself or if he just buries the thought because it’s too hard, too painful for him to live with the memory.

The title concept is intriguing too. A sleight of hand is the misdirection involved in magic, pick pocketing, or anything where the subject ‘s focus is elsewhere. While they’re looking at what they think matters, what they think is significant, the agent is acting on him without him realizing it. A victim of sleight of hand has lost their agency and they don’t even know it, or don’t recognize it until it is too late.

The music tells this story perfectly—in some ways even better than the lyrics. While this is a strong lyric (the second verse after the Mondays were made to fall lyric is particularly strong )it is not as solid from top to bottom as I recalled—some of the lines are awkward or confusing, especially in the chorus. We don’t notice or care in part because the sentiment is still clear, but the real star of Sleight of Hand is the soundscape. The delicate, mournful sound of the guitar, the lost, wistful fills, the crazed feedback of the chorus, the uncertainty in the drumming, the distant sadness in Eddie’s voice. Sleight of Hand works best at this elemental level.

The question that remains is whether or not we’re supposed to feel sorry for this person. It certainly seems like we’re supposed to, but Soon Forget undermines quite a bit of that sympathy. That’s an argument for tomorrow, though.