Front Page Reviews & AIR
People, Places, and Isaac Brock
We’re not sure how Isaac Brock does it. I’m waiting in line at the bank. Sunbeams light up a bowl of cheap candy. The guy next to me smells like peanuts. In front of him, two college cuties in matching blue tracksuits are thumbing their iPhones. I left my phone in the car, which leaves me straight up stranded in this long line with next to nothing to distract me. No texting, no 3G. I could contemplate a favorite topic or practice humming solfege intervals. I could think about hilarious things my little nephews say. But impatience has won and my brain is obsessed with irrational shoulds. “I should have made this deposit 10 minutes ago. This guy’s breath is KILLING me; he should have eaten some cereal or something. Those girls look so ridiculous. Why the hell are they wearing the same thing? I don’t get it.”
It’s hard to do anything at all in this retarded mental state, but somehow I manage to reproduce a melody. I tap two fingers on my thigh and start whistling the cheerful, cowboy-boot stomping melody of the closing refrain of "Parting of the Sensory”: Someday you will die and somehow someone's gonna steal your carbon! For some reason the obnoxious tone of Brock's madman voice, the reminder of my inevitable death, and the rhythmic delivery of this insight all combine to calm the impatient mental storm that's led me to the brink of a public tantrum. What about it makes me feel better? I don’t really know. But Brock’s tunes have a way of successfully stirring cheerfulness into the tougher parts of human experience. We can acknowledge sucky situations and smile at them, even if we're stuck with them. I'm still in line by the way, and the lady with short, thinning brown hair is still at the counter asking questions about the basic uses of ATM machines. I turn to look out the window again. The hoods of cars are lit up with sharp golden lines of sunbeams. IT'S SATURDAY AND I'M AT THE FUCKING BANK! I look down to the floor and compress my hair into a fist. My attention shifts to how much I like my Nike's. I keep tapping and whistling.
In 1996, Isaac Brock entered the music scene with Modest Mouse and brought us into his clever world of ideas. His songs read like poems: shot through with clever manipulations of meter and rhyme schemes, the use of repetition, personal vulnerability, and keen observations of local phenomena. The ideas in the songs present a refreshing critical angle on the general state of affairs. Social class power discourages him. Adult routines are dull. People treat other people like crap. Arguments are frustrating and the psychological effects of loss are inevitable. Brock's written work touches on a common problem for people that are trying to wrap their minds around the complexities of human experience: Does a critical orientation set a limit on our capacity for happiness? If we don't like something or feel averse to a situation, how can we find a means for simultaneously acknowledging the problem and existing in it without freaking out?
Sometimes we just feel stuck, so maybe it's the being stuck quality of people-trapped-in-time that has Brock so nauseous and perplexed. His lyrics establish a time and place while they portray a character's unsteady position in the midst of it. In "Custom Concern," he writes that "monuments and steeples," structures both historical and religious, have been built to "wear out our eyes.” Despite our blindness, history, unfortunately, continues to advance. Later in the song, after mentioning the repetitive nature of work, he worries that "this'll never end, this'll never stop.” We live in the wake of history, and we've become trapped in pre-determined routines that we're bound to carry forward–waiting in lines at the bank, for example, or having to remember alternate side parking rules. In "Novocain Stain," he wrestles with his own understanding of the history he’s caught up in. His confusion is first conveyed in the song's two opening lines: "When I can work out how it was / I'll tell you." In line 3 he writes that "TV stained [his] memories," and then later describes how new restaurants, malls, and renovated areas of this particular town are "named after the things they replace.” They’ve overlaid his town with a strange veneer, and he's having trouble remembering places that he's known. The old days are blurry. Brock is disoriented in a new world he no longer recognizes.
If this were the only problem, we could suggest that he move to another nice town. Maybe someplace near his cousins? But in these earlier songs Brock discloses another important part of his disillusionment. In addition to struggling with the past and his own fuzzy memories, he disdains the environment of the now as well as the general organization of people in it. In "Tundra/Desert", he writes "it's childhood that makes ya / til they treat ya like tundra,” and "every planned occupation / surefire disappointment up ahead.” From Brock's point of view, adulthood isn't a harmonious succession of trimmed hedges and fulfilling experiences. People will treat you coldly, flatly, and lifelessly (i.e. tundra), and you'll most definitely be aching for something better. Moreover, once we land a job and start paying the bills, the inanimate objects–the big cement hives that we buzz through–won't be there to cushion the free-fall into post graduation sadness. We'll live around noisy, corporatized places like "crowded chain restaurants," desolate places like "parking lot fields," and pristine beaches that, while they were once accessible, have now been monopolized by a team of fat-walletted, cigar-chomping entrepreneurs who are grinning between the silver clasps of their stinky overalls. It seems like Brock’s problem is bigger than local routines. Parking lots are practically everywhere. Getting older happens. Working for someone is inevitable, unless you wanna live in a yurt.
Brock's dystopian vision attains its full expression in "Beach Side Property," when from the perspective of a "broken Californian," he describes what's happened to a slice of the west coast. In clever play on words, Brock relays that this town isn't moving, but it's "losing ground.” The entrepreneurs and their work teams are "making better views,” ostensibly by clearing trees and leveling the land. Then in line 5 Brock turns the ground into a maimed, jaded person: "The ground sure don't like the way it's treated so now." It's planning to "hitch a ride on the river" and move back into the sea. Though it is unclear whether or not the ground or the broken Californian are the "I" in lines 8 through 13, legs get whittled down to nothing, and sore eyes are not treated, not tested and given a prescription, but annihilated. The disheartening climax of these abuses of this once pristine plot of sandy land is the historical manifestation of colonial white power–the plan of the "saints." Brock follows the allusion to its inevitable and realistic conclusion. The saints left a memo on God's forehead, telling Him that they'll be creating a union, buying the congregation, and dreaming up "big ideas of stocks and shares"; bummer for the broken Californian.
With the uses of characters, animals, personification, jokes, and references to actual places, Brock creates a textual-musical critique of American society. We’ve hated a few bosses and scoffed at passing BMWs, too, so the songs resonate. However, Brock's success as a writer is not only located in his ability to create settings and bring listeners into those spaces, but also his conscious choice to be willing to share his experiences and critique himself. He's not just observant and pissed about what he's discovered–he also self-analyzes and self-deprecates, showing that he is unwilling to hide behind either musical talent or socio-historical intellectualism. He reminds us of our better moments. In "Dramamine," he laments the impossible chasms that are created when people aren't listening to each other, and he's frustrated and dizzy from the disingenuous attempt at reconciliation by an empty physical solution: "We kiss on the mouth but still cough down our sleeves.” Brock's loneliness and confusion–those two best buddies that resurface throughout the grind of human experience–emerge in songs like "Talking Shit About A Pretty Sunset" and "Edit the Sad Parts." From "Talking Shit About a Pretty Sunset," Brock writes:
And I claim I'm not excited with my life anymore
So I blame this town, this job, these friends
The truth is it's myself
And I'm trying to understand myself
And pinpoint where I am
When I finally get it figured out
I change the whole damn plan
Oh noose tied myself in, tied myself too tight
Talking shit about a pretty sunset
Blanketing opinions that I'll probably regret soon
I've changed my mind so much I can't even trust it
My mind changed me so much I can't even trust myself
By looking inward, Brock reconstructs the external problematic into a personal one. He's suspicious that his analysis is a form of blame, and that over time he'll come to regret his "blanketing opinions.” After figuring out a tough problem, he tends to "change the whole damn plan". He’s not alone here. I dropped out of school for a year. I changed my major 3 times; me and my “plans.” Ha! This song isn't about the changes in the neighborhood, but rather a confession of feeling lost and confused. "I'm trying to understand myself / and pinpoint where I am.” He's reached a point where he's talking shit about a pretty sunset, unable to appreciate the oranges and browns that light up the sky as the sun goes down. His mind has been "tied too tight,” like when simple decisions are hard to make for no apparent reason except that you know what you don’t wanna do. Disillusionment with circumstances–a theme so prevalent in songs like "Desert/Tundra," "Custom Concern," and "Novocain Stain"–has migrated to the territory of psychological confusion. In Talking Shit…” he knows that he doesn’t know. It’s hard to trust his perceptions because he's changed his mind a lot. He feels like a victim of his mind's activity.
Brock continues in "Edit the Sad Parts."
Sometimes all I really want to feel is love
Sometimes I'm angry that I feel so angry
Sometimes my feelings get in the way
Of what I really feel I needed to say
A stand up comic and a rock musician
Making so much noise you don't know when to listen
Why are you judging people so damn hard
You're taking your point of views a bit too far
Here Brock gives us more insight through a similarly private mode of discourse. He confesses that people–and by implication he–might be taking their opinions "a bit too far.” He criticizes his own profession, rebuking the rock musician for misguiding people with too much noise. In a courageous effort of vulnerability, Brock shares that his feelings are a substantial part of his experience, and he wants to feel loved. By laying out this tender, universal element of human experience and contrasting it with "point[s] of view," Brock implies that the fundamental desire for love is sublimated by or buried underneath his harsh judgment of other people.
By raising issues pertinent to the personal dimension, Brock touches on the quandary of the critical attitude: that drawing sophisticated conclusions about the world at large can become a smokescreen for personal or psychological pain. Brock, like anyone who is committed to the humility inherent in the quest for knowledge, is aware that he could be wrong about what he sees in the world, that though he refers to society as a "desert" and portends that malls will become "ghost towns,” he accepts the possibility that they may only be dry, creepy, and lifeless to him. After all, other people aren't so disgruntled with the general state of things. Mom and her cute 4-year-old daughter are still laughing on the carousels. People love cell phones, the convenience of parking lots outside their favorite stores, and pop music. And no, they're not ignorant and their eyes aren't worn out.
Another facet in the dilemma of endless analysis involves the contradiction in participation; that despite our ability to identify problems in our society and assume a moral stance about them, our private behavior often has no substantial impact on the world at large. Vegetarians buy rice and bean burgers from the frozen section of grocery stores, which now make additional profits from this budding sector of the food market. Meats are still exploding off the deli slicer by the kiloton. Abstinence from meat and fish can make a mild impact on the domestic market, but then again, China and Japan are still scooping boatloads of fish from the ocean at record rates. In the interaction between people and technology, we critique hierarchical class power and at the same time use products that are produced by unethical means. Computer parts, car parts, and a lot of our clothes are made in China, Cambodia, Bangladesh, and other Asian countries where unfair labor practices (lack of sufficient pay, excessive work hours, and unhealthy working conditions) affect the lives of millions of people everyday. "Yeah, it's bad," we admit. But then we get on with things, knowing that it's really tough–despite our observations, critical analyses, and personal choices–to peek our heads outside the hurricane. And while we're aware that it's important to question beliefs, assumptions, or information that may be misleading or untrue, it's possible that what was once a worthwhile set of questions had, somewhere along the way, transformed into a blinding obsession. One night Brock couldn't enjoy a sunset. Brock's critical attitude opens up another potential discussion about our mental dispositions: Are our soapboxes and perspectives about the world more of an expression of our own fears and insecurities than an accurate assessment of the data at hand? How do our mental states and our interpersonal experiences affect what we see and believe? If we spend a lot of time chastising the world around us, can we enjoy our lives to the fullest?
As a whole, Brock's writing is in some ways reminiscent of the work of French photographer, Jean-Francois Rauzier. Rauzier takes photos of buildings and then, by cutting and pasting and adding color, turns them into gigantic, perspective-altering structures using their own basic properties (windows, ledges, columns, walls, facades, rooftops, etc.). Rauzier's Byzantine-era cathedrals look even more magnificent in a playful reorientation of their established angles. Italian and French paintings are shrunk and pasted into the windows of the Louvre. Random people, like an elderly religious man wearing a red robe and matching red yarmulke, is placed in different parts of a cavernous library at the Sorbonne. Each of the photos presents one or a variety of vanishing points, and the content of the photographs conveys a series of complex references to various historical epochs. When looking at Brock's work, which has now spanned the period of 1996 to present, we see a similar array of references and places that serve to both intrigue and dizzy us. Brock brings us to the beach in California, then off to Florida, then out to the mysterious "eye in the sky,” then down in the ocean, then at a wedding, and then back up and away into outer space. He reminds us of the moment we throw rice at the bride and groom, and in other songs we're given an image of ourselves buried and bantering with the living. In Rauzier's paintings, our eyes focus in on certain sections of them, but can't take in all the details without leaving those areas for other parts of the picture. We have to shift to see other details and momentarily ignore where we were. Brock's writing requires the same kind of attention; it's hard to process all at once. The guitar harmonies and the rhythmic shifts happen in unexpected places. It's easy to sing along with catchy lines that seem abstractly true: "Love you more than everything / Loved it more than anything / Loved everything more than anything,” but in the next measure we're thrown off, confused again by long pauses on weird chords our ears don't recognize. The music bears a sense of knowing and not knowing, familiarity and estrangement set against a series of sonic delays, twists, and climaxes. Serious subjects offset playful moments. Deep sighs of relief are counteracted by antagonistic dark horses. Both Rauzier and Brock present these dizzying, dialectical tensions in their art.
Like many great artists, Brock establishes himself as a thinker who is using art in the attempt to digest historical, social, and personal data. By adopting a critical attitude toward the outer world and the dynamics of adult life, Brock wrestles with acceptance of the world around him and the possibilities of participation in it. In 2007, he presented a potential solution to the dilemma in "People As Places As People":
All this scrambling around
Hunting high and then low
Looking for the face love
Or somewhere to go
I hardly have places that I need to go
'Cause you're the places that I wanted to go
Yeah you're the places that we wanted to go
In this passage he suggests that the people, not jobs and other social practices, are the most substantial destination of human longing. Though getting older can be overwhelming, people are there, too. Earlier in the song he writes that there's "always something we look for / from the day we were born.” Now he's not looking for answers about social problems, but rather for the "face love." "All this scrambling around" in the details of the world's mysteries and all this frustration with the world's ugliness hasn't led him to a place of intellectual freedom and joy. The real places we are looking for are people, and they've been with us all along. We love some of them a lot, so maybe they are the true treasures in the hunt for happiness.
Looking at other portions of Brock's writing reveals that he is conflicted about the value of intimacy with others. In songs such as "People As Places As People," he affirms personal connection as an antidote to confusion. Similarly, "So Much Beauty In Dirt," a song from 2001, recounts a spontaneous adventure with a lover that includes getting drunk and riding bikes, laying in the grass, skinny-dipping at night, and having sex in public. The only line that repeats in the song serves as it's romantic theme: "There's so much beauty it could make you cry." But in other songs like "Little Motel" (2006) and "Parting of the Sensory" (2006) he presents the idea that being alone has its own merits, and that our individual paths might be "a life long walk to the same exact spot.” In an analogous mode of isolationism, "Dark Center of the Universe," like "Dramamine," is another poem that privileges conflict and loss over harmony and peace. Addressing someone that's mad at him, he admits to being an "ass" in line 3, but then absolves himself with the excuse that other people could "equally, easily fuck you over.” In this tune he hasn't included the self-reflective realization he'd conveyed in "Edit the Sad Parts"–in "Dark Center…" condescension wins. He summarizes his frustration by appealing to two sad-but-inevitable outcomes of all human endeavors: change and death. Kids grow up and leave the nest. The body requires a lot of maintenance to keep going. Things we love disappear. "Well, God sayin' something, but he didn't mean it / Everyone's life ends, but no one ever completes it / Dry or wet ice, they both melt and your equally cheated." The properties of ice don't maintain their form, so presumably relationships don't either. Life is, regardless of our individual narratives, bound to end without a sense of completion or arrival. We will lose what we have (ice melts). Our intentions and plans don't matter; we're cheated no matter what.
Sometimes the lines are too long, but at least the bankers let us log in and keep track of our debits. If only life’s complexities were a simple matter of addition and subtraction…if only short-term fairness translated into long-term satisfaction. The ambiguities we discover in Brock's assessments are not the result of either logical incoherence or rash judgment. Brock's subjects (and the way he plays with potential conclusions) reflect an incessant accounting for the inner and outer worlds of experience. And more than that, his main task is not to create a consistent philosophy of life, but to make songs. (And man, do we love him for it, or what? Yes. We. Do.) The jury is still out for Brock, and for most of us, I think, on precisely how we can hate things that deserve our hatred, while still managing to hope enough to care for each other and make some kind of durable contribution to society. Adopting a critical orientation to the world serves as a way of reading, understanding, and coping with the world. It's also a way of taking (and measuring) responsibility for what we see in the state of affairs. It's hard to take it all in, though, and the danger of it might be in the frequency of our sharp reactions. How often do we want to be pissed off at stuff? And two big questions are still mixed up in Brock’s world, and for anyone who's trying to wrap their minds around all the data. When we look inside the big mixture of the world's phenomena and hope to find the "face love," is it really there? Or are we faced with the task of coping with the force of our own desire for love, when there is nothing but a fake destination, an old plastic sign buried in the dirt, a handful of crumbs? And what about our brains? Is confusion a preface to a future of clarity, or is it an organic ingredient in a world that never can make total sense to us?