Rolling out the guns
This war drags on and body counts grow and participants -- soldiers and insurgents and noncombatants who somehow (inevitably?) become combatants anyway -- invent new ways to swell those numbers. And those in the thick of the bombs and blood hope and pray for the war to end and for those they love to not get killed before then. And some who aren't in harm's way but care anyhow protest, march in the streets, raise high signs until their arms are heavy with a satisfied ache and shout fervent until their throats burn. Others who care press cash into the palms of politicians who promise to end it now or in six months or a year. And still others mutter unconvinced and unconvincing about moving to Canada or Europe, about relinquishing their own country and its foreign policies, but offhand, late at night, half-drunk in bars into their beers. And then there are those who write songs, anti-war songs. Most of these songs are no good: clumsy, hysterical harangues that neglect complex geopolitics, historical trajectories and the vagaries of chance. Songs that proffer simple solutions for something that is not simple.
The most (perhaps only) disappointing thing about the new Arcade Fire album (I think you know the one) is some of its lyrics. Specifically, those about holy wars and not wanting to live in America no more. Glib, unconsidered, easy, too easy, words like these make the songs that hold them -- however dynamic and melodic and otherwise full of honest feeling -- clumsy, hysterical, harangue-y. The latest Low album is a different kind of problem. Borrowing its title from the grim "guns and drums and guns and drums" incantation that weaves through the old folk standard "Johnny" like a dirty-gray specter, that record is all vague, horrified reaction and paralysis (despite having some other good things to recommend it).
I'm not certain there is such a thing as a good anti-war song. But the way Gowns performs "Johnny," in rasps and gasps, hisses and glitches, prying turgid harp lines with thick thumbs, seems true, it sounds right. Hard despite its soft, florid beauty, it intimates the agony and weariness of war, insinuates the mechanical motions of machines and men and the arduousness of resisting that mechanism, affirms the futility of saying, they'll never take our sons again.
Gowns release their first album, Red State, next week on Cardboard Records.