and I began to live again
It all started when…
There came a day in mid-2017 where I woke up, as if from a trance. It felt like the movie "Arrival," where I could suddenly see the full flow of time, and could envision the future I wanted to live, and the alternate timestream where I had done it differently, and where they would have left me. Suddenly, the disorientation of the previous five years cleared. The ensuing months were a grieving process for the life I had walked away from, for the wrong steps I had taken, as I tried to make peace with those. Around that time, I finished my 2018 record "My Airport, Your Airport" and almost immediately embarked upon this follow-up. Two months later, I left Washington, DC, a city where I did not belong, and I rebuilt back in New York, a city where I do. This is a redemption record. If you have ever lost your way and then sought to find it again, I hope these songs remind you that you are not alone.
The first three songs on the record feature the word "home" prominently in the chorus. This one is about the interior home, the second about the exterior home, the third about the time-space impermanence of home.
But really, this song is, at its technical core, about furniture shopping. At age 35, for the first time in my life, I bought myself real furniture, and most of the lyrics are taken from the names or corporate descriptions of the bed, dresser, rug, duvet cover, and various other things I acquired. The purpose of this spree was to signal, primarily to myself, that I plan to stay and be a constant man at last. Several friends added vocals, banjo, and mandolin, creating a complete sound and a real genre mash-up.
This is without a doubt one of my favorite songs here... though not the favorite. That one comes a few songs later.
Where "Restored" is about interiors, "Architecture" is about exteriors. Before I had even moved back to New York, I knew I was aiming to make my home in the dense vertical neighborhoods I had lived in before. This song is a natural follow-up to "In The Right City" on the previous record "My Airport, Your Airport." Right as I was finishing that record, this song kicked off a blizzard of creativity in which I wrote half a dozen songs in about three frenetic weekends. Of those, this I think was the only one to make the final cut. I recalled one of those feel-good Facebook posts from some news outlet or another in which somebody said, “Falling in love is the moment home becomes a person, not a place.” People and places aren’t mutually exclusive though. That's a recurring theme on this record.
Also, that dramatic stab on the chorus? There’s about eight different instruments going there simultaneously, but the dominant one is an epic soft pad off my keyboard. And what chord is that? Yeah… I kinda forgot. I can never remember how to play my songs after I’ve written them.
Our Time Here Is Ending
There's a lot going on in this song. Sonically, I’m winking at loads of my favorite artists here, whether it’s the home-cooked digital percussive loops, the fretless bass, the piano trills, or the early electronica-esque steampipe synth flutes. At the end of “Architecture,” guitarist Ronan Conroy brought a vintage Digitech Space Station pedal to the studio and used its reverse delay effect to create that delightful outro sound you hear. I liked the pedal so much I tracked one down on eBay and used the same effect on this song.
Lyrically, it’s a complex song as well. I study population demographics and ethnic cleansing as a pastime, and have argued that what I call "ethnic engineering" is an integral and inescapable part of the modern nation-state system we live in today, and must be understood as such. Recent political events have made that pursuit seem more personal than merely academic, as the world becomes increasingly uncertain for ethnic and religious minorities everywhere. I was standing in the sculpture garden at United Nations Headquarters, founded in the aftermath of a war my grandfather had served in, when my father called to tell me my grandfather had passed away after 98 titanic years. This song followed soon after.
Metal Cloud, Industrial Rain
Having restored my surroundings, I can return to my favorite subject matter: infrastructure, transportation networks, population demographics, and their effects on the human condition. Where the first three songs are different visions of home, this song kicks off a three-song triptych (“Oceangoing Alone” and “Mar Vermeio” being the other two) of motion, dislocation, and wandering. This three-song set is inspired by the Italian Futurist Umberto Boccioni’s train-station-farewell masterpiece “States of Mind.” Boccioni is one of my favorite artists of the 20th century. Though he died in World War I, he knew everything, for good and ill, that was coming. One of the first things I did when I moved back to New York was renew my MoMA membership just so I could go see these three paintings whenever I wanted.
“Metal Cloud, Industrial Rain” is a scavenger song. The title and lyrics were cannibalized from previous failed songs, earlier drafts of songs for this record, or from unpublished stories and essays. The thing that ties the song's disparate parts together is the idea that the urban environment is artificial, maintained by industrial and agricultural production in unseen hinterlands. Rain is the one way the earth system reminds the city that it has not escaped natural processes. What if the clouds and rain were part of the industrial system, not the natural one? Sometimes in a metropolis it feels that way. There's a reason it’s seldom sunny in dystopian sci-fi. The outro, however, comes at the same idea from the exact opposite way, that instead of the weather being mechanical, it's the city itself that is organic, and it's built from real rain and real dirt and a real countryside that empties down into the city on rivers and roads and rails and makes it what it is. As “Avatar The Last Airbender” teaches, metal is just a purified form of earth. We really need to do a better job of greening our cities and turning them into living, photosynthesizing, vibrant ecosystems, especially since in this century most of the world's human population is going to live in them. Just an idea.
PS Flashback! When I was a child, I got to play a xylophone in music class at my grade school, and the teacher instructed us to try to mimic rain on the xylophone. I got high plaudits for my effort, and I’ve associated mallets with rainfall ever since. Nearly three decades later, I deployed the digital variety here on the second and third choruses to that end.
This song is the hinge of the record. I rapidly cranked it out—really rapidly: the guitar line you hear was the first take I recorded just so I wouldn’t forget it, then decided to just go with that take—after realizing there were no chord progressions on the record and that all the other songs were thus structurally unperformable at open mic nights. The swelling sounds behind the guitar are actually the opening strum of the guitar lick played backwards and slowed down to a fraction of its original speed, pitch-shifted, and soaked in a massive amount of reverb. The rainstorm is actually two rainstorms recorded years apart, and one of them played against itself out of phase in stereo, with the goal of creating the full effect of a thunderstorm power-washing the side of a tower block. One great thing about electronic music is that time and space are irrelevant, for anything recorded anywhere ever can be mixed together.
As for the subject matter… have you ever looked up Rapa Nui/Easter Island on Google Earth and wondered how the heck people in catamarans were able to find it in the vastness of the Pacific? If not, I recommend doing so now. As far as the sheer impressiveness of the human readiness to wander and explore, the feat is comparable, given the relative technology available at the time, to visiting the Moon.
The heart of the record. Like “Architecture,” this song combines a physical and an emotional sense of home, a time to stop wandering and empire-fighting and find a small place in the world and just enjoy that with someone lovely. On top of what I’d already recorded at home, the record’s producer Charlie Nieland laid down a remarkable piano line, which was improvised in one take (so much so that we kept the sound of him bonking into the mic as he sat down at the piano to play).
This is the song where you know you belong, even though at the time I wrote it I wasn't quite there yet, and thus named it after the vast unseen (and in fact non-existent) inland sea that appeared on early Spanish maps of the New World that supposedly divided California from the American mainland. I hadn't made it to the promised land yet, but for the first time I was thinking maybe I could. One of the most satisfying tunes I've ever written.
The City Rises
During the months I worked on this record, in MoMA’s fifth floor gallery, Boccioni’s “States of Mind” lay opposite another Boccioni work, the massive, gorgeous ode to scaffolding called “The City Rises.” I knew I had to pay tribute to that painting too, especially since my neighborhood was undergoing a frantic construction binge. The lyrics highlight the resilience of people recovering from the blows given to a city, to its residents, and, personally, to me, as I had spent months recovering from a concussion and related PTSD and post-concussive effects brought on by a random street assault in late 2013.
Not content to just highlight the good of the city rising around me just as I was rising up from the dark DC years, I cheekily recorded a snippet of a street protest against housing prices and Governor Andrew Cuomo's apparent refusal to do anything about them, which you can hear at the very end of the song. And all of this preceded by months Amazon’s HQ2 debacle in Long Island City! Around the time we laid down that distorted marimba line that comes in at the second verse, I turned to Charlie and said, “This is turning out to be a weird record.” And, in spots, it is.
Eyes Open At Last
I've had periodic bouts of depression since before I knew the term. Over the years they manifested themselves in different ways. But after I left New York in 2012 to go to graduate school, it became debilitating. The first half of my 30s were lost.
This is a song about the moment when I cleared those years.