Thursday, November 18, 2010

Guided Tour of Backspacer: Unthought Known

by stip

Unthought Known 

Alongside The Fixer and Amongst the Waves I’d argue that Unthought Known is one of Backspacer’s critical thematic moments—one of the songs that defines the record. Whereas The Fixer celebrates the moment of action, and Amongst the Waves rewards its subject with the blessing of a spiritual peace earned through a lifetime of struggle, Unthought Known is a song about promise and possibility, about not just experiencing the world as an agent, but of appreciating the world for what it is—a stage on which we are able to act, and through the process of action, define meaning, fulfill potential, and create ourselves. In this, Unthought Known is a more reflective exploration of the moment captured in The Fixer—it gets caught up in the same emotional space, but it takes the time to stop and look around, to marvel at the gift of agency.

The start of Unthought Known immediately brings to mine Wishlist, and while some of this is superficial similarity (the palm muted beginning) the tone is similar as well—the quiet determined desire to think about the world and your place in it, and follow those thoughts wherever they lead. As in Wishlist, this simple foundation is given its weight and gravity by the way the rest of the band colors in the empty spaces and gaps left by the melody—as if the melody is the act of thought and the musical flourishes the content. But where Wishlist (one of my favorite songs on Yield) stays in a quiet and sober place, Unthought Known quickly finds itself overwhelmed by the majesty of the universe, and the certainty that, for at least this moment, we belong. The band does a wonderful job here conveying this sense of wide eyed wonder and cosmic liberation with the rapid fire build and sustained climax—the way the instruments pile onto each other (the chiming guitars whispering their promises and 33, the sense of purpose conveyed by the drums at 48 seconds, the liberation offered by the piano at 1:05, and the way it all comes together to celebrate the joy and possibilities found within existence at 1:20. Even a year later my heart beats a little faster as the music sweeps us up into an expansive celebration of life itself and essentially maintains this high for essentially the rest of the song—we come down after the bridge, but only temporarily, and simply so the song can lift us up again.

In some respects it’s an exhausting ride. Unthought Known attempts to maintain a climax for basically the entire song (minus the brief build in the beginning and the cool down at the end), with little time for the listener to rest or come down. This is a surprising approach for a reflective song to take, and the music is not always up to it (or perhaps it is the production). Once the song reaches its high (the gems and rhinestones lyric) and plateaus there isn’t really a whole lot of variety and so the high has to sustain itself primarily on what is already there. It works great the first few listens, but once it’s familiar it starts to feel a little thin, like it exhausts itself. Given how much energy this song has to consume to occupy its space what we’re given needs to sound richer than it does. The simple production aims to capture the clarity and purity found in the moment of epiphany that Unthought Known chronicles, but it needs more. It’s at about 1:45 (after the ‘path cut by the moon lyric’ where the song enters what I suppose passes for its bridge) that the song starts to feel slightly empty. Not starved, mind you—but it definitely needs to sound fuller than it does.

Vocally and lyrically this is one of Eddie’s stronger performances on the record and, interestingly enough, one of the weaker vocal melodies, although the later isn’t as necessary because the former is so stronger. Eddie commits to the song right from the beginning, with a child like sense of wonder, enthusiasm, and joy, filtered through the experiences an older, wiser man returning to a place he never expected to see again. This is what Amongst the Waves (the chorus anyway) needed to sound like. Usually I find Eddie less persuasive on his advice/wisdom songs, where he tries to impart the listener with the lessons he’s learned from his own life and his own experiences. But it works quite well here because, unlike a song like Life Wasted or Love Boat Captain, he isn’t pleading and he isn’t telling us something he half expects us to reject. Instead he’s asking us to share a moment with him, and since Eddie’s power as a vocalist comes from his empathy, his willingness to commit to the experience he’s describing and invite us to do the same, this approach, and the final product, ends up being much more persuasive.

Lyrically some lines here are better than others (Eddie has always been an inconsistent writer, even when he’s on the top of his game) but the key lines here are great, and capture and communicate in provocative lines and stunningly simple images the spirit of the song.

It’s a slow start for sure, with the first four lines (‘all the thoughts you never see’ through ‘yeah this is living’) being pretty unmemorable, almost like he’s rushing through them to get to the parts of the song that really matter (it’s not surprising that the song takes off musically, vocally, and lyrically at the same place). But since this song (unlike most pearl jam anthems) captures a moment instead of telling a story the introduction isn’t as critical as it is on a song like Alive or Given To Fly.

The call to ‘look for love and evidence that you’re worth keeping’ is perhaps a little syrupy, but it’s a wonderful sentiment that cuts to the heart of what Pearl Jam’s music is about. They had always rejected the nihilism of their peers and believe that there’s a core within just about everyone that’s worthy of love and salvation. It’s easy to lose sight of that in a world full of institutions and social arrangements that separate us from the world, each other and ourselves, and so we need that reminder.

He does a great job running with his nature metaphors (and thankfully they aren’t all water based), capturing the mystery and majesty of our world (this song might not have been out of place during some of the landscape montages in Into the Wild), reminding us that we’re blessed to be a part of it, and that within it are unlimited possibilities if we’re prepared to reach for them. Obviously this is oversimplified and the band knows better, but at the same time this is the only way out of the dead end of Binaural, Riot Act, and even S/T—the moment of critique can show you what needs to change, but it cannot inspire you to actually make the change—that in order to act there needs to be both a way forward and a belief that this way points to a better world. And the images in Unthought Known are pregnant with that empowering sense of hope and possibility—the beauty of a pool of blue sky, the way in which love takes a void and fills it with light, the sense of oneness with the world that makes you think that the moon shines down to light YOUR way, that within the sound of the waves is secret knowledge only yu can understand, that the world holds its breath for you. The gems and rhinestones lyric is my favorite in this sequence—in part because it’s delivered with such ecstasy but in part because of the juxtaposition between the two—the way in which the world is going to offer you its gems, its tokens of objective value, and its rhinestones, it’s potentially valueless moments that we can make priceless by assigning value to them ourselves, and that the meaning the world has is up to us—that there may be no difference between gems and rhinestones. Again we can argue about whether or not this is true in reality, and it’s an important conversation to have, but it’s also important that on occasion we truly believe that there is no difference.

The nothing left bridge is a little tricky since it’s not clear what he’s talking about. Given the way Eddie exults in the delivery I take it that there’s nothing left of our burdens, nothing between us and the joy of pure experience and limitless possibility, especially given the lyrics that bookmark it. The other high point of the song (and Eddie’s delivery draws attention to this) is the ‘dream the dreams of other men/you’ll be no ones rival’ lyric which, with a slight change, Eddie delivers twice in a row. It’s a great line, in part because of its ambiguity. What does he mean by rival? This is not the only way to interpret this line, but given the surrounding context I think of it as a challenge to build relationships with other people like the relationship with the universe that the rest of the song celebrates—that if we bind ourselves to each other, if we commit to the lives of the people around us, if we’re prepared to love them and learn from them, the barriers between us fall. We free ourselves from the artificial restraints that keep us from each other, and in the process, from ourselves—that we really discover who we are through this sense of communion with the world, with each other, and with ourselves. We complete who we are through the merging of the three.

The song comes down from its extended high to end on a sober note. This is the ideal. We’re not there yet. But wouldn’t it be wonderful if we were. Unthought Known lays out the possibility, at an emotional level, of a richer, fuller world—one that we belong to rather than stand in opposition of, and asks us to commit to that vision.

Other songs in this series:

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