Thursday, July 4, 2013

A Guided Tour of No Code: In My Tree

Although this seems to be the most popular song on No Code, it doesn’t sum up or embody the album the way some other centerpiece songs might. Instead In My Tree continues to explore the same themes and ideas that define the first half of the album, focusing on its own piece of the larger puzzle. Of all the songs on No Code this one is most rooted in place--more a destination than a journey, albeit not a permanent destination. In My Tree is also less about any particular message or insight, and instead is about creating safe spaces so it becomes possible to reflect and rebuild and begin again.

In general I am not a fan of trees as a metaphor (and between In My Tree, Present Tense, and Given To Fly it looked like this was going to become the dominant in Eddie’s writing--I prefer the wave and water metaphors), but In My Tree does an excellent job creating the musical equivalent of someone sitting at the top of a very tall tree, precarious and at peace. The music comes at you from far away (this is one of the most distant sounding songs in the catalog, and even Eddie sounds curiously muted. The way the music sways, the guitars rocking the branches back and forth, the way the chorus gasps at its height and clutches the branches for balance, the accents coming out of the bridge that call to mind a breathless clarity of vision (the way you can see a great distance from a great height as all the stuff that obscures your vision closer to the ground is irrelevant)--this is all very well done in subtle ways. I don’t really think of No Code as a soundscape record, but I’m starting to change my mind. Like many of the best tracks on Binaural, the music doesn’t just create atmosphere--it paints pictures.

Lyrically this is a tale of two songs--so/so verses with a weak bridge, but an excellent chorus. Thematically this is all stuff we’ve seen before and will see again, and for a well Eddie has gone to so often this is rarely where he is at his best. The world around you is too complicated, too full of distractions, too ugly. You can’t see the forest for the trees. And so in order to be able to see again (internally and externally) and make peace with the world it is necessary to remove yourself from it, at least for a little while. And the song starts with that literal description. I am high up and very far away--no one cares about me. No one notices me. They are all distracted by the dirty grind and shiny things that the singer left behind. The world recedes, and you’re left with no one to talk to but the leaves, who presumably don’t judge and are excellent listeners. The perfect space to talk yourself through the puzzle of yourself. 

There are no new conclusions reached here--this is all ground we’ve traveled before and will travel again. Accept that understanding, let alone mastering, the world around you (or yourself) is impossible. Instead you need to make your peace with the fact that everyone and everything is different, the journey never ends, the context always changes. Trees do eventually stop growing taller, but they spend their whole lives adding to their trunk, replacing the leaves and branches that have fallen.

I’d be remiss here if I didn’t quote John Stuart Mill. This is from chapter III of On Liberty, probably the best book ever written on the importance of granting people space for finding out who they are, and building societies in such a way that people do not need to alienate themselves from it to discover this.

“Human nature is not a machine to be built after a model, and set to do exactly the work prescribed for it, but a tree, which requires to grow and develope itself on all sides, according to the tendency of the inward forces which make it a living thing.”

Overall I am a bigger fan of the ideas here than the execution (it is not badly done, mind you, but I’m not sure the verses are inspired, either). The chorus, however, is very well done. As KD noted earlier, the chorus gives us a hint of how dizzying the heights are--how the attempts at self discovery are exhilarating and terrifying at the same time. One wonders, given Hail Hail, Smile, and Around the Bend if this climb would have been easier with a partner, but No Code is a pretty solitary record overall (and maybe you need to make this pilgrimage in order to be able to open up for someone else). There was a prize to be won here--the recaptured innocence--but this isn’t a place you can linger for long. The innocence lyric is especially nice given the way the imagery parallels the rock a bye baby nursery rhyme. There is also that sense of breathlessness, the lack of oxygen, coming from the power of the experience (this is an epiphanal song, although the content of that epiphany gets colored in from the surrounding songs) or the danger of the isolation. The phrase the sky I scrape is especially provocative. How can you scrape the sky. How can you rub up against and hurt yourself against something that lacks substance. Since the whole thing is a metaphor the song seems to be saying that while this is a place you can visit, you can’t remain here long. it is dangerous. The nest is down below, with the people we’ve left behind.

In My Tree
Off He Goes
Red Mosquito
Present Tense
I'm Open
Around the Bend

No Code 
Riot Act 
Pearl Jam