Wednesday, October 1, 2008

fate up against your will sergeant

On the way home today, I put on for the first time a live Echo and the Bunnymen CD. I hadn't even heard of it before I rescued it from the Great Escape this past summer.

This CD had even been in the car since early September, when I repacked my travel CD case (my car, a '98 Sunfire, doesn't have an iPod hookup), so I don't know why I hadn't played it sooner. I guess I hadn't been in the mood for it until today.

And maybe I was too in the mood for it today, because I cried at least twice while listening to it.

Me, I'm All Smiles, the album in question, documents a very nice 2005 London performance of the reunited Bunnymen. Even with boffo original drummer Pete de Freitas long dead and bassist Les Pattinson once again an ex-Bunnyman, the group still sounds great live. Ian McCulloch's voice seems a little rougher, whether from accumulated wear and tear or maybe just the particular circumstances of that evening, but it's still grand. And guitarist Will Sergeant just gets better with age. He's not often cited as one of the great guitarists, but hearing his always-creative rhythm work and the ring and burn of his precise, Verlaine-toned leads is one of the greatest guitar treats the world has to offer.

Both new ('96 and after) and old material come off well on this album. And I really like the number of Heaven Up Here songs (their difficult, sometimes underrated second album) that made the setlist.

But what made me cry were two other old standbys: the title track from "Ocean Rain," which closes the set ("sailing for sadder shores / your port in my heavy storms / harbors the blackest thoughts" always does me in), and especially "The Killing Moon." I realize "The Killing Moon" is up there with "Lips Like Sugar," "The Cutter," and "The Back of Love" as one of the most played and widely recognized Bunnymen songs. But I don't care if it's a crowd favorite or not. It absolutely wrecks me every time I hear it.

"The Killing Moon"'s lyrics seemed cribbed from the climax of a Thomas Hardy novel, so much so that I expect Eustacia Vye or Bathsheba Everdene to walk across the moonlit heath any second: doomed lovers meeting at night, "fate up against your will," the "you" of the song apparently pledged to another "him." I'm not sure if McCulloch has ever talked about a Hardy connection; maybe it was like how McCulloch hadn't actually read any John Webster, but absorbed enough from his girlfriend reading Webster to come up with Porcupine's "My White Devil." Such lyrical ventures risk pretension, but fortunately, McCulloch's phrases are just abstract enough to come off as pleasingly evocative rather than awkwardly literary.

But what really makes the song is Sergeant's playing. Whether it's the signature opening riff or the short, furious, urgent lead break before the last verse, the song is a showcase for everything Will does well. And has there ever been a more devastating use of the whammy bar than when Will transitions out of that lead and back into that gorgeous, grand riff?

Somewhere in that lead break is always where the tear always starts making its way down my cheek, no matter how many times I hear the song. Some of what produces that tear is the emotion of the song itself, and some of it is the quarter-century of affection I've invested in the song.

But most of it is the pure awe of experiencing a work of art so beautifully composed and executed. We get so few moments of transcendent joy in our lives. For me, this song is one of those joys, and hearing it always makes me feel connected to art and literature and music and life in a powerful, direct way.

I'm thankful that "The Killing Moon" exists, and I'm very glad I got to experience it again today - and that I can share that joy with you here.

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