Tuesday, May 24, 2011

A Guided Tour of Vs.: Rearview Mirror


(A Guided Tour: Vs.)
After the uncertain, flailing anger or brooding bitterness of the first seven songs, Rearview Mirror marks the first real moment of revelation on Vs. It is not quite sure what to make of this new perspective, this restoration of sight –we know what the subject sees behind himself, but not what’s in front of him. He sees who he was, not who he might become. That will come later, in the final three songs on the record. Rearview Mirror documents the moment of release, not the aftermath. It is an experience of pure, unencumbered emancipation, and its power is found in the breathless appreciation of that moment.

The power of the song is amplified because it feels earned. The best songs will (usually) not just document the moment of liberation. They will also chronicle the journey (Alive and Given to Fly also do this particularly well). The music tells much of the story. There is a stubborn grittiness to the main riff that also manages to feel quite fluid and convey a sense of movement, a promise of freedom. The rest of the surrounding music burdens the riff in an unobtrusive way, adding drama to the song without calling attention to it. Prior to the bridge the song keeps getting heavier. Experience piles on experience. Life piles on life. Some moments are more traumatic than others. There is more drama in the crashing accents of the chorus than the fuzzy guitar that mirrors the main riff in the first verse, but in either case the music presses down. In the second verse the track the riff is running is strewn with the obstacles the music keeps placing in front of and underneath it but the subject plows on, unbowed, defiant, refusing to give in.

The determination is rewarded in the musical breakthrough in the bridge. For seems to largely be a bunch of held notes and feedback the music takes on an ethereal, dreamlike quality. The burdens recede and fade. There is space to breath, to reflect. The past finally becomes past, rather than present. And the song takes a deep breath and starts to run again (jeff’s bass tells an important part of this story), but this time it breaks through. Rather than weigh the song down, the music is a long, exultant scream of triumph. There is anger here, and hate, a vanquishing of enemies as much as a personal victory. It is a complicated finale, one that doesn’t quite leave the trenches, one that reminds the listener that the journey isn’t quite over. But the end at least begins.

The music perfectly mirrors the story Eddie is telling. In fact, one of the things that really struck me sitting down to write this was how unnecessary Eddie is, and RVM has one of the strongest set of lyrics and vocal performances in the catalog. The song’s power comes in part from the fact that we get told the same story in a few different ways—intellectually through the words and elementally through the music (and vocals).

Eddie’s voice is grim and weathered, but there is a powerful inexorable quality to it—the sound of someone beaten down but not beaten. He practically sighs the last word in each lyric in the verse (and the end of the chorus), but it’s the sigh of someone who is prepared to fight, and keep fighting, even if it is forever, punctuated by moments of rising urgency. Above all else, Eddie invests the song with a sense of potential, planting seeds that ripen during the song’s second act, the two minute climax, a mixture of relief, joy, and a harsh territoriality, a willingness to fight for the newfound liberation.

Lyrically the song begins in the present, but it’s a present haunted by a past it is trying to escape. Eddie chooses (for the first time, but not the last) the car as his vehicle for escape, since the car is a symbol of aggressive protected freedom—you’re moving fast, feeling powerful, and safe at the same time, the vehicle interposing itself between you and the rest of the world. The subject is running from abuse, both mental and physical. There are references to beatings, but there’s psychological abuse too. In fact, its’ not clear if the physical beatings were always there, or if they finally served as a catalyst, a way to crystallize the mental torture, the living in fear, the blaming of the self, and shock the subject out of their passive, servile state. 

The beating reference is probably the least elegant moment in the song (other than ‘I gather speed from you fucking with me’ but at that point it feels earned), almost too obvious given how subtle and effective the rest of the lyrics are, although it is offset by the intriguing ‘made me wise’ lyric. This is a song about revelation, the restoration of inner vision, and that culminates in wisdom. Still, this gift is no gift at all. It has been bought with bitter currency. It is the exclusive possession of the subject, paid for with trauma, and there is no gratitude here. The descriptions of abuse are subtle and powerful and do a wonderful job conveying a sense of being trapped and slowly suffocating, the victim of someone else’s crimes : ‘I couldn’t’ breathe, holding me down, hand on my face, pushed to the ground’. I used to think this was a song about child abuse, but it could be anything. Rearview Mirror provides an emotional context and lets the listener provide the concrete details themselves. The final lyrics in the chorus ‘united by fear, forced/tried to endure what I could not forgive’ are particularly powerful –the way in which whatever relationship this person is running away from is false, grounded in fear, rather than love, and ultimately unsustainable, despite the best misguided efforts of the subject to make it work.

The second verse really starts to emphasize the sight imagery that is at the heart of the song’s climax—looking away, visions waving, and a new perspective—that for whatever physical abuse that may have been suffered the real damage was on the inside—that the subject is escaping from the psychic harm as much as physical harm. We have the presence of physical abuse ‘fist on my plate/swallowed it down’ but there is also the sense that the bigger problem is the fact that the subject is prepared to take the abuse, to try and endure it, rather than leave it (head at your feet/fool to your crown). What does that say about them?

But, thanks to the ‘gift’ of this last round of abuse the subject finally flees, and as they get away (either literally or metaphorically) and look behind them, once they’re no longer the cornered, wounded animal we see in Go, Animal, or Blood, the subject is able to recognize that they’ve been a victim, that they did nothing wrong, that they did not ask for the abuse, that they deserve better, and that they have an opportunity to recreate themselves, to start over. We have a callback to Daughter as the shades that went down are raised alongside the revelation that someone else had pulled them down in the first place.

We don’t yet know what kind of person they’re going to be, how the subject is going to recreate himself. The final songs on the Vs. will ask that question, and fill in some of the gaps. But this is not a failure of the song. Rearview Mirror doesn’t try to answer those questions. Instead it celebrates the moment of emancipation that makes asking that question possible.

Glorified G
Elderly Woman Behind the Counter in a Small Town