Thursday, July 18, 2013

A Guided Tour of No Code: Off He Goes

[A Guided Tour of No Code]
On the surface Off He goes and Who You Are are treading similar ground. Who You Are is a song about accepting yourself for who you are and doesn’t move far beyond that point. Off He Goes, however, which offers us a window into a far more concrete internal debate (externalized through two characters), is not a song about accepting yourself. Instead it is a song about trying to make peace, which implies a current state of war. The song is trying to win a tenuous ceasefire. In that respect, Off He Goes may be closer to In My Tree than Who You Are. Both songs are trying to carve out the space to make self-development possible. And while both are, in certain ways, traveling songs, they are nevertheless grounded in particular places that the subject doesn’t want to remain in for much longer. And so both are uncertain songs, despite the surface confidence--although in My Tree is the more successful of the two in terms of internal resolution. 

Musically Off he Goes is beautiful--rich, deep, vibrant, full of weary dignity. But there is also something almost pristine about it. In an odd way the song moves beyond intimacy into something artificial. Off He Goes, more than any other song on No Code, feels like you are watching a character rather than experiencing what they are experiencing. Or, maybe better, the other songs invite you on stage, and Off He Goes asks you to remain in the audience. This is one of the only songs in the catalog without any rough edges or imperfections--there’s nothing here to make this real. Beautiful, but artificial. Crafted. It also (in conjunction with some heavy handed writing) gives the song a narcissistic at worst, self indulgent at best, feel that the rest of the record lacks (this may be because I treat this song as being about coming to grips with being famous, which isn’t very interesting at this point--Vitalogy exhausts this subject). 

It may make sense that the music puts up this subtle barrier (although I am sharing it, this is not really for you), since in many ways the lyrics create a space you are asked to observe, rather than participate. We watch our characters from a distance. We are told what to think. We are spectators, rather than actors.

So what are we watching? Off He Goes is a confrontation between the subject and a personification of elements of his personality that need to be more fully integrated into a stable self (wanderlust, passion, judgment, embattlement) Where this confrontation happens is unclear. I picture a living room, late at night, warm, firelit, a room surrounded by pictures, tangible memories. There is a rural, wood paneling feel to the place, presumably coming from the music. The subject is lost in memories, musings, bittersweet regrets. There is someone he cares deeply about who can’t stop running from (or fighting--probably both) the world around them. They are too afraid of stopping to slow down for very long, too busy denying the world to live in it. The imagery of the song is dominated once again (like who you are) by the language of travel and destination. And he has long been showing signs of fatigue and exhaustion. The wear and tear of living in opposition to the world, rather than embracing it. Still, there is a sense that the traveler wants to stop. He wants to come home. He wants to be at peace. The perfectly unkept hope. 

And for at least a little while there is a sense he may get there. He comes home. He is reunited with the singer. They are together, whole, and there is the hope that no matter how complex and difficult our context becomes (the surrounding buillshit) the core of that relationship is soft enough to surrender and strong enough to endure.

It is a short lived victory, however. It is an aspirational peace, glimpsed, even grasped, but only for a fleeting moment. The desire to run, the pull of the road, the fear of stopping, the need to confront, the longing for escape. It is all too strong. And so the song ends where it begins. There is a moment of completeness that justifies holding on to hope, but the battle isn’t over. Peace isn’t there. At least not yet.

And so Off He Goes ends on a down note and kicks off a dark 4 song run that marks the low point on No Code’s spiritual journey, a block of songs where we fail to rise above our imperfections the way we do in the records opening run. Unfortunately, these are also some of the weaker songs on the record (with one very notable exception), and when the record itself tries to come full circle the material that is left may not be strong enough to do it.

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

No Code 
Riot Act 
Pearl Jam