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In Praise of Maturity: Conor Oberst, Bradford Cox, et al

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The Orpheus myth offers a fertile metaphor on the relationship between inspiration and creative maturity. Anne Wroe writes in The Daily Beast:

Orpheus … contains within himself two sides of the poetic character. ... Traditionally, Orpheus was first a priest of Dionysus and then a priest of Apollo; he linked the cults within himself. Dionysus represents the disordered madness of poetic inspiration, in which the poet loses himself and becomes one with the god; Apollo represents sobriety, order, individuation, and separation. One side of the poet is totally immersed in nature, beauty, or terror; the other side looks on from afar, and re-creates the world out of longing and loss.

There’s no need to literalize the descriptions of or differences between the Dionysian and Apollonian energies; it’s more relevant to note that these modes represent divergent energies that, by nature, are designed to be integrated, at which point their relationship becomes no longer contradictory, but rather paradoxical.

An artist’s early work is often defined by a singularity of expression. As some artists approach mid-career, however, their work begins to reflect stylistic, thematic, and tonal leaps that involve the inclusion of elements that were conspicuously absent in earlier projects. If we look, for example, at Conor Oberst’s early work with Bright Eyes, we recognize compelling but singular emphasis on struggles with depression, dissociative tendencies, and relational disharmony. The musical contexts are exquisite but minor; if compared to a color range, mostly composed of grays, browns, and blacks.

The songs on Fevers and Mirrors (2000), for example, are Dylanesque, though heavier; perhaps folk takes on Sabotage-era Black Sabbath; a musical reworking of Confessional poetry a la Sylvia Plath or Anne Sexton.

If we listen to Oberst’s later work, we observe the integration of additional and diverse themes, tones, and energies. This isn’t to say that Oberst abandoned his earlier orientations with such recordings as The People’s Key (2011) or Upside Down Mountain (2014). To the contrary, songs such as “Firewall” and “Approximate Sunlight” are lyrically and sonically infused with references to suffering. In some ways, these two albums are even darker documents than earlier works, due to the presence of sustained contrasts — suffering of self and other (narcissism and compassion), the possibility of hope and the inescapability of disappointment (Eros and Thanatos), recognition of inconsequence and the value of engagement (nihilism and love). Also, in these later works, Oberst exhibits a heightened capacity to detachedly observe and comment on his experiences, is less immersed in and identified with a singular existential state, as evidenced in songs such as “Artifact #1” and “Double Life.” Artists, if they creatively mature, tend to shed a certain righteousness and stylistic or thematic rigidity, reveling in the implicit acknowledgment that perception is subjective and specific content is relevant only momentarily. It’s this attunement, and the cultivated ability to express it, that becomes vitally important and the primary impetus for continued production.

Maturation involves one becoming more and less of oneself at the same time. To return to the myth: Eurydice is Orpheus’s muse. She dies. The gods grant a reprieve. She must follow Orpheus from the underworld; he must not look back until they’re both securely in the sunlight. Orpheus glances back prematurely. Eurydice is then forever gone. Orpheus lives the rest of his life bereft, finally ripped apart by women whom he has shunned, his decapitated head and still-sounding lyre thrown into the river.[1]

Wroe tells us,

When Orpheus makes his journey to the underworld, the meaning of his myth seems at first to become clearer. He represents the power of love, and the power of art, to overcome death. He challenges the shades and overcomes them with the loveliness of his song. He represents, too, the journey of the soul, which must descend to the lowest point, through realms of punishment — as he was apparently the first to teach — before it is purified, and can ascend again. Light, to dark, and back to light.

The artist cultivates faith that the path of darkness is worth following in and of itself, without even the promise of redemption. He sings in the night, devoid of guarantees. The artist seeks his own way into the sunlight; and yet, the recovery of the light becomes incidental. This is Dylan on Blood on the Tracks and again in Time Out of Mind. Leonard Cohen, I’m Your Man and The Future. Bruce Springsteen, Wrecking Ball. Lucinda Williams, West. Alanis Morissette, Under Rug Swept. Ryan Adams, Love Is Hell and 29.

It’s during this time — when the artist is lost but not lost; in the dark but seeing, perhaps for the first time — that she becomes the witness. Whereas the young artist claims her life and potency through expression, the mature artist relinquishes ownership of her experiences, becoming a spokesperson for an unfolding that is both personal and impersonal. In this way, the ability to express the universal, through the particular, is born.

This process of maturation can be increasingly observed in the work of Bradford Cox, whose projects with Deerhunter and Atlas Sound have evolved from oblique storms of dream pop/shoegaze (Cocteau Twins, My Bloody Valentine), post punk (Siouxsie and the Banshees, Joy Division), and art rock (Bowie, Velvet Underground) into broader expressions that transcend genre, fixed perspective, and habitual stylizing. Albums such as Cryptograms (2007), Microcastle (2008), and Weird Era (2008) mark Deerhunter’s foray into the realm of lyrical, melodic, and sonic expressionism, recordings that strike me as musical correlatives to Jackson Pollock’s early paintings; perhaps a work such as “Mural,” rendered prior to his shamanic “drip” pieces.

I’ll venture, though, that sometime between 2008 and the release of Halcyon Digest in 2010, Cox awoke in his own underworld, ambling without direction; studying what may have been experienced, at least initially, as an uninspired and vapid lull, a threat to the continuity of his legacy. Yet, somehow he grew to admire, even cherish, this utter lack of bearings and deconstruction of identity, an initiatory experience which resulted in Monomania (2013) — Cox’s musical self-actualization as expressed in such gems as “The Missing,” “Blue Agent,” and “T.H.M.”[2]

Deerhunter’s recent release, Fading Frontier (2015), represents yet another milestone for the band. Songs such as “Living My Life,” “Take Care,” and “Carrion” reflect a palpable appreciation for space, texture, and sparseness. The way content is framed, and the space around it, within it, has become, with these recent recordings, as important as and inseparable from the content itself. Monomania and Fading Frontier seem to be characterized by an implicit acknowledgment (by Cox and/or Deerhunter as a whole) that life and art occur within a larger and more enduring context.[3] Perhaps this points towards the impact of humility, which may be expressed in any number of ways, directly or indirectly, though it does seem that the passage of time invariably humbles an artist, as indeed it humbles most people. That humbling becomes a source of inspiration or bitterness (adaptation or cynicism). In other words, as many muses as we embrace, there are probably that many more that we reject.

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How might Jimi Hendrix have matured had he not died at the age of 27? There’s no guarantee, of course, that longevity, even if it involves vital maturation, will translate into commercial popularity. In fact, we have to be careful not to collapse the two. Perhaps only the artist can comment whether he has fully embraced the path that was meant for him; whether she fulfilled her destiny, creatively and existentially, even if her chosen trajectory resulted in pop obscurity. That is, there’s no guarantee that an embrace of one’s “true self” will translate into a happily-ever-after storyline.

Had they lived, perhaps Hendrix, Kurt Cobain, Janis Joplin, Amy Winehouse, and Nick Drake, among others, would have fine-tuned their talents into expressions that made the gods and a handful of mortals weep, all while they performed in small clubs and released the occasional album on an independent label. Perhaps they would have moved on to other things, music being but one interest among many.

There’s the matter of addiction, which at least in part involves a resistance to change. Addiction is a dam in the current of maturation. And addiction isn’t related to only substances — one can be addicted to anything that brings pleasure, security, or a (real or induced) sense of enlivenment. Addiction is fundamentally a habitual attempt to engineer a connection to the godhead, which with every attempt takes one further from it — years spent repeating a ritual that grows more counter-productive with each enactment.

In the end, again, only the individual can evaluate such matters. How am I guarded against life, and how am I open to it?

Finally: curiosity and maturation seem to go hand in hand; curiosity yields an appreciation for the complexities of life and less reliance on timeworn defenses; as a person traverses his many initiations, his experiences become more individualized and uniquely nuanced, less easily categorized, singularized, or dramatized.

Nothing can save me — as I accept that and begin to revel in it, the true muse appears from the emptiness within and about me, what has always been and will ultimately endure. Somehow, in that moment, I recognize my face, even though it looks nothing like my own.

 

[1] There are those artists who find another muse or who are able to enter into a renewed relationship with their muse; there are others who lose their muse and make the absence of the muse a muse in and of itself. I’d suggest that the most utilized rock motif, “the love song,” is essentially an elegy to the departed muse, the unknown muse, or the yearned-for muse. Love is fantasized as the ideal muse, the absence of which is associated with a walking death or agonized zombification. Ultimately, however, loss has probably inspired more art than has abundance. We think we crave happiness, but history tells us that the greatest source of inspiration is misery.

[2] I’ve become more and more taken by this intuitive sense that Bradford Cox is the reincarnation of John Lennon. The timeline works too: Lennon died in December 1980; Cox was born in May 1982. These notions of course are arbitrary and based on inner senses, pulls, draws that can’t be linearly explained. Many suggest that death is followed by a time in the “tunnel of cleansing”—I swear I can remember this!—which can extend from one to three years chronologically, though that may translate to a moment or an eternity in experiential time. I said it the other day to someone: “If Lennon were born in 1982, which in essence he was, then he’d sound like Bradford Cox,” at which point my friend grunted and stabbed a potato with his fork.

[3] That said, it should be kept in mind that the transformation of contradictions into an integrated paradox (what alchemy, on a practical level, really is) is the issue at hand. Some artists debut as minimalists and learn to integrate maximalist elements; and/or vice versa.

This is wonderful, and definitely an interesting point about the crop of great artists who died young, and how they might have come to mature as artists. It's hard to imagine any of them leaving music entirely to pursue other things, though I've always imagined Cobain may have become a novelist on the side.