Romance and the Postmodern Disconnect
by Martin Sharp
What is romance? And if we could define it in some way, does it exist?
Romantics probably will say that there is indeed a definition for romance, that romance does in fact exist. A cynic likely will say that romance doesn't exist in today's postmodern world. Most people, if they've thought about romance at all, perhaps will say that there's a middle ground: Romance may or may not exist, but if it does, it's up to the individual to define it. Relativism, while immediately practical, produces a kind of disconnect that in turn produces a potentially soul-numbing cynicism that is contrary to the very notion of romance. British pop rockers Maxïmo Park examine different tensions that signify this postmodern disconnect between individuals and romance and love. Romance and love in the postmodern world turn out to be very slippery things indeed.
Vocalist Paul Smith's lyrics often take a pessimistic view of romance, but the music is often creatively at odds with the lyrics. One example can be found on Apply Some Pressure (an EP) and the band's full-length debut CD, A Certain Trigger. "Apply Some Pressure," written by guitarist Duncan Lloyd and Smith, kicks off with Lloyd's and drummer Tom English's loud and joyous playing. Then we hear Smith: "You know that I would love to see you next year/ I hope that I'm still alive next year." That's not the attitude that the song's opening anticipates. Soon enough, the rest of the band joins in, and Smith sings lines in which the other person is objectified: "Beneath your veil/ I found the body underneath." Not your body, the body. Not a body, the body. Then immediately after, the other person is pictured as the dominant part of the equation: "Inside your head/ Were things I'd never thought about." As his band mates pummel along, the listener ponders the meaning behind Smith's words. However the song is interpreted, there's a rather sad and frightening disconnect. Romance is absent, and this adds an imaginatively rendered realism. Tension is the constant undercurrent.
That realistic tension is explored further in "I Want You to Stay" from A Certain Trigger. The mid-tempo rocker begins with Archis Tiku's throbbing bass, English's drums, and Lloyd's guitar. The music is subtly foreboding, especially with Lukas Wooler's synthesizer and organ lines that add to the song's tension. The tension is further exemplified by co-writer Smith's vocals; he's pleading, he's angry, he knows that what he wants he also doesn't want: "I rewrite my life beneath moonlight/ Please hold me now/ 'Til my breath runs out/...But there's one thing I can't deny/A double-bluff/You fed me lines/...I wish I knew how it came to this/...I want you to stay/I want you to stay with me/'Cause nothing works round here." The romance no longer exists. There is deception, pain, and a sense of loss. The singer is unable to let go for the past tempts him as he implores his lover to "remember what we had." Instead, the singer holds on to a pale, moonlit shadow of romance out of necessity, looking for some shred of hope, some direction, within the glow of the "neon signs of night." The contrast offered--the natural light of the moon and the artificial light of neon signs--suggests an uneasy, ambiguous tension, a competition. Which is best? Which is preferable? Is there an answer? The tensions remain unresolved.
In Maxïmo Park's world, "love"--as Mickey and Sylvia once sang--"is strange." It can also be even darkly confusing. Such is the case with the Paul Smith-penned "The Night I Lost My Head" (from A Certain Trigger). Again, the music sets up something fun, frothy even. Lukas Wooler's rock and roll piano pushes the song along. Again, the music butts up against the darkly comic lyrics: ""I spent all night trying/To remember your address/Drawing lines around your body/Making marks on the mucky floor/...Why did we have to meet/On the night I lost my head?" Well, now. That's a rather skewed, but brilliant, look at romance. Again, the unanticipated melding of upbeat music and cryptic lyrics provide a glimpse into an ambiguous, surrealistic tension. Nothing is clear.
Romantic ambiguity and tension are further explored in "Fear of Falling," in which the arrangement reinforces the narrative (the song is on the EP and Missing Songs). The chord progression is such that the band simply can't find a logical way to get back to key in which the song begins. Just when it seems as if the song is going to implode, the music stops dead. But, this is more than a catchy arrangement propelled by Archis Tiku's superb bass playing; instead, "Fear of Falling" works as an organic, unsure whole with the lyrics: "And I/I think I found you/I know I saw you/I think I found you/I think I saw your need/And I wanted to get back at you(?)... The tension snaps." At one point, Smith sings, "Your love is good for me/We never overreached/The fear of falling/ Your love you know that it's good for me." As is often the case with real life, "Fear of Falling," written by Tiku and Smith, never quite pins down emotions and thoughts; ironically, the lyrics clearly express the ambiguity that romance engenders.
All is not total gloom however, as be might be seen in real life. A Certain Trigger's "Kiss You Better" is an upbeat rocker that offers an oddly tender look at romantic rivalry in which the singer attempts to persuade someone that it's worth the plunge to fall in love, to pursue romance: "Now is not the time to lose your voice/Everyone should have a choice/And if you should ever fall/I'd kiss you better." The band maintains a punchy pop rock arrangement that keeps things light. However, even in this lighter environment, there's a shadowy undercurrent that suggests that romance is never an easy thing to attain: "Your beliefs will make you drown/ Are you so scared that you're just gonna let it happen?" At least within the light and shadows we see in "Kiss You Better," a sense of hope somehow remains.
On the other hand, sometimes there's little or no hope. Besides their somewhat darkly skewed visions of love and romance, the band and Smith's lyrics sometime represent the sadness of a shattered romance that's yet to be sundered. One such example can be found in the beautiful "Books from Boxes" (written by Lloyd and Smith and found on Our Earthly Pleasures). This time, there is no juxtaposition between raucous music and dark lyrics. The song rocks, but it's not rowdy. The sadness is not overwhelming, but it is palpable all the same, wedded to some of Smith's best lyrics: "We rarely see/Warning signs in the air we breathe/Right now I feel each and every fragment." Duncan Lloyd's gentle guitar begins and ends the song, poignantly framing the song with a sense of loss and, at the song's conclusion, finality: "The pounding rain continued its bleak fall/And we decided just to write after all." The romantic is in us all can surely identify with the characters in "Books from Boxes." That's what a great song accomplishes.
Maxïmo Park's songs mostly deal with the effects of romance on individuals and their relationships. At times though, the band's perspective engages all of humanity, such as a song found on Our Earthly Pleasures. "The Unshockable" looks at a commodified and de-romanticized culture. "The human heart is on trial for a limited spell," Smith sings. "The human heart is on offer for a limited spell." The result is a false dichotomy: "Have we become The Unshockable?/Or have we become The Saddened?" Once again, the music perfectly compliments the tone of the lyrics. Tom English's drums and Archis Tiku's bass anchor the song, while Lukas Wooler's synthesizer and Duncan Lloyd's guitar push Paul Smith's weary vocal, which in turn implies a sadness at what he sees.
If the heart is merely a thing that can be bought and sold, people are mere disconnected, self-centered things. "I'm not a man/I'm a machine/Chisel me down until I am clean," Smith sings on "Our Velocity." The postmodern disconnect is pervasive and discouraging: "Love is a lie/Which means I've been lied to/Love is a lie/Which means I've been lying too/I've got no-one to call in the middle of the night anymore/I'm just alone with my thoughts." The music, like Smith's vocal, is an ironic mix of the near-mechanical with an underlying passion that suggests that all is not yet hopeless. The lyrics "I watched a film to change my feelings/ I'm strong enough to bear a burden/ I everyone becomes this sensitive/ I wouldn't have to be so sensitive" express the tension and loneliness of a romantic poet in an enigmatic and frustrating world. Yet even this one possible glimmer of hope is tempered because the impetus for change that allows the singer to feel is artificial: film. Smith's rapid fire singing of each syllable in the word "sensitive" and the band's equally rapid fire playing help to underscore the unresolved tension of matters of the heart in a postmodern, technological world. Even within this context though, all is not lost. All is not hopeless because film can also be art, and art can serve as a way for people to make sense out of their worlds. Art has the potential to speak to the heart.
While it might sound pretentious, and I don't know if he would agree or want to be labeled as such, Smith is a postmodern poet who happens to sing in a superb rock and roll band. And like all worthwhile poets, Smith's role as a postmodern romantic poet is to get us to see our world, even if the portrait is ill-defined and sometimes bleak and fragmented like "scattered Polaroids" ("Books from Boxes").
Ultimately, Maxïmo Park is a rock and roll band that creates diverse, inventive music that often takes surprising twists and turns. Lloyd is a great guitarist who always adds just the right touch, whether the need is for something subtle and supple or something a bit more aggressive. Wooler's keyboards compliment the songs and brings deftly textured colors and shades. Tom English is simply one of rock's best drummers who knows when to thrash and when to swing. Finally, but by no means least, Tiku's bass tastefully anchors the band; he always provides just what a song needs. The sum of all their parts creates Maxïmo Park.
When people stop dancing and listen to Maxïmo Park's well crafted pop rock, the band seems to hope that people will thoughtfully appreciate the music that leads to an engaged dialog with the lyrics' thought-provoking and poetic images. There is much to think through and sort out; this should serve to counterbalance the postmodern disconnect between us and romance and love. A thinking romantic might say that perhaps Maxïmo Park's songs are inviting us to not remain what we have become or are in danger of becoming.
Also see the Maxïmo Park website
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