Wednesday, August 15, 2012

A Guided Tour of Ten: Even Flow

[A Guided Tour of Ten]
I realized as I sat down to write this that I haven’t heard the Ten version of Even Flow in years (I prefer the rerecorded version but this one is still really good). Anyway, Even Flow musically reminds me a bit of World Wide Suicide, in that you would expect a song dealing with subject matter of this sort to be slower—something more in the singer-songwriter vein. Instead the song has a compelling, almost danceable grove to it that at first seems at odds with the message of the song. It is certainly one of the warmest pieces on Ten, much more inviting than a song like Once, which appropriately enough tries to push the listener away (while simultaneously drawing the listener back in through the immediacy of Eddie's voice. This tension is one of the strengths of the record). Even Flow, like Jeremy, tries to bring the listener in. In that respect it reflects the yearning that is at the heart of the song—the search for a home, and (implicitly) someone to share it with, and creates a nice juxtaposition with the darker lyrics. 

Even Flow has always had a special place in my heart since there is probably no social issue that bothers me more than homelessness. Our willingness to leave people alone and isolated (exacerbated by the 12 years of Reagan/Bush that Ten is coming out of), deprived of the most basic element of security that there is, marks a real failure—both of our democracy and even our basic humanity, and that is what Even Flow is about—trying to rehumanize the people we normally work so hard at forgetting (remember the outro to the rerecorded version ‘I died/I died and you stood there/I died and you walked by…’so that we can’t forget them. Only by denying another person’s fundamental humanity can we create the mental distance necessary to abandon our most vulnerable people to their own suffering, and when we do so we kill off an important part of ourselves—the part of us that is fundamentally social, that needs people to love and to be loved by them. Once shows us what happens when that gets lost. The songs on Ten all address this theme in some capacity, although they normally do so at an individual level. Here (and in Jeremy) the message just exists on a larger scale—a condemnation of larger social practices that make this possible.

The song starts out with one of my favorite images in the entire catalogue—the man lying on the hard ground (I like the juxtaposition of the pillow and its sense of softness with the concrete), freezing from lack of warmth (this could and probably should be read both literally and figuratively—lacking the warmth that comes from security—knowing that you have a space that is yours and someone to share it with). All he has to sustain him is the vague hope that things will better as the rest of his life passes by him in a blur. Every now and then people give him money or something to help him find another meal or a place to sleep for the night, but the act is devoid of any real warmth. We don’t find out the person’s name, and more often than not the act of charity is defensive—a way to ward off our own guilt rather than actually help (and especially to rehumanize) the person we give to. There is a hint that the person is mentally ill (many homeless people in this country suffer from some form of mental illness, and many were thrown out of hospitals in the 80's due to funding cuts)—again a black mark against us as a nation for abandoning the most vulnerable among us to their own devices. Or perhaps he lacks no classifiable disorder. Perhaps he's just been driven slightly mad due to his own experiences—his own painful isolation, even in the midst of the thousands of people who pass him by every day. The second verse continues these themes—the sense of helplessness (trying to find a job though he can’t read, fear of the upcoming freezing winter, shame felt over his condition (whatever scant help is available is meant to be painful—to remind him that his condition reflects a failure at his end, rather than our failure to make sure that its members are taken care of) and above all else the most intimate form of isolation that there is—praying to a God to alleviate his suffering and never having those prayers answered and finding yourself utterly alone.

I'm not sure exactly what an Even Flow is. But even with that lyrical ambiguity the chorus is still powerful—focusing on the vague promise of future redemption. The hopes and possibilities (and as usual Eddie's voice does a wonderful job of conveying this, as does the music) flutter around him—beautiful but impossible to pin down and make sense of. It isn’t clear from the song if the whispering hands represent some kind of future aid, or perhaps a cop or social worker taking him to another temporary shelter. But what is striking is that he feels the hands, and hears the voices, but cannot connect the two. The interaction is faceless, stripped of any human connection (even the voices are muted), and regardless of where he is going, he is still being led there—passive, alone, and hoping that someday the faces appear in focus.

Even Flow 
Why Go 

No Code 
Riot Act 
Pearl Jam