WARNING: DO NOT BEGIN LISTENING TO THIS TRACK UNTIL YOU HAVE READ THE FIRST PART OF THE FOLLOWING GUIDE
Alvin Row is a downright painful listening experience.
“Spirit They’re Gone, Spirit They’ve Vanished” is perhaps one of the most bewildering albums ever produced, a piece that defies just about everything you’ve ever heard before. It’s filled with ear-piercing metallic shrieks, almost unidentifiable vocals and furious, unpredictable percussion. Why listen to it? It’s the debut album from the founding two members of Animal Collective, perhaps the most driving force in folk and electronic music in this century. It’s the album that defined them as the most unpredictable force in music, one that altered dramatically from album to album.
Alvin Row is the final track on the debut album, the finale that brings all the elements, both thematically and compositionally, into one piece. It’s an artist’s manifesto, a 12-minute epic, and an autobiographical piece in the vein of James Joyce’s “A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.” This article exists primarily to help you make it through the first four and a half minutes of Alvin Rown so you can enjoy the final eight. Secondarily, I wrote this article because I desperately want you to hear one of the most brilliant songs I have ever heard and perhaps experience it the same way I do.
Please read Part I of the following guide and then begin listening to the song. It’s a real doozy.
“Baby love me now that you are born.”
An infinite number of noises, patterns, beats, songs buried in the most unpleasant cacophony you’ve perhaps ever heard, a DNA hardwired with utter potentiality. Drums clash madly, ebony and ivory keys clatter from the piano onto the floor and dash wildly about the room. Electronic patterns swirl unbound, piercing the highest frequencies your ears can withstand, then climbing even higher, erratically scratching at the bounds of aural perception then diving back down to staticky purrs that eat away at your sanity.
I’m fascinated by the fact that this mess begins with a command: Baby love me. No justification is provided except for the mere fact that the baby has been born. The baby is confined to the four walls of compliance at conception, a baby with infinite complexity, infinite cognitive capacity, infinite potential. A total mess of undirected intention and uncoordinated ability. It’s as though the artist is flaunting this command instrumentally, defying the notion that potentiality can be bound, and over the course of an entire excruciating minute, utterly infuriates are sense of What A Song Should Be with a brutal, unbound and cacophonic onslaught.
The first thing I recommend you do is let this song be what it will be; if there’s anything I learned from the album Spirit They’re Gone, it is that we can truly let music be what it will be and watch it develop rather than apply our own rules and regulations to it. This portion of the song isn’t meant to be enjoyed- it’s meant to set the stage for the rest of the song in a way that only a disaster of an intro could.
What follows sounds disturbingly like a creepy lullaby, a grotesque nanny rising from a mess of noise and nonsense, swaying to life, tottering stiffly across a dark and shadowy nursery. The artist is no stranger to horror, both in cinema and in music; much of their original music was inspired by the horror movie tradition, and they are not afraid to deeply unsettle you. So just let yourself be unsettled for a moment.
“Baby speak in rhythms now you’re three.” It’s time for this song to start making sense. It’s old enough that it should start adhering to prescribed patterns and rhythms- you were about to stop paying attention because it took so long to start making sense. You bent it to your will, didn’t you? We force children into patterns so that we can predict them, don’t we? The more this song becomes a true “song,” the more guilty I begin to feel. I wish children could be allowed to lie in a fantasy universe forever, and this song structurally represents the way in which we/I/society force them otherwise. We give little regard to music that is born of no necessity, no pattern, no justification for its existence. We cannot listen to a cacophony for more than one minute before we demand that it be something, and damn it if we can’t decide exactly what that thing should be.
“Baby bang erasers and wash the board/Think just yesterday you wore a sword/Watch your New Years evening wash away/You’re on the floor/Can you hear me troubadour?” Alvin Row has become an adult before the lullaby has even ended, his growth from a baby that can do nothing but love, to a drunk on New Year’s Eve, chronicled at every step before he can even be sung to sleep. The singer’s voice rises in lamentation “Can you hear me troubadour?” then resolving the melody just in time: “Alvin Row.”
So. We got a consistent beat and a melody. Keep listening.
A song starts to emerge. A post-adolescent, self-aware life stutters to life amid beats that form, clash against each other, ebb and then clash again. “Alvin Row tangled in your broken kite/It’s hard to be Ben Franklin but/Try staying against the light” the artist sings, narrating the young adult looking back at his life, looking forward at his challenges, seeing who he could be and what he wasn’t. The lyrical progression up until this point has been direct, explicit and perfectly sequitur. It narrates a child’s birth and development through adolescence, the same birth and development we all experience and watch others experience. Now we hit the twenties, the age at which the artist wrote this song. The age at which things get terrifying, uncertain and intimidating. This section of the song dwells on the artist’s desire to grow out of the exact thing that he’s grown into.
This is the slow build, one that mires itself down in several distinct parts. Sometimes the artist croons as the piano flows beneath him through arpeggios and proper progressions. Sometimes chords chop from one end of the piano to the other, inhibiting the song from moving forward and making the vocals honestly pretty hard to enjoy. And then a single chord is mashed in heavy staccato, a frustrated post-adolescent pounding the steering wheel or table in fury, unable to take his life in the direction he wants, unable to be the Ben Franklin genius that he wants to be/is expected to be/perhaps cannot be.
It’s important to note the compositional brilliance of this section, one built of many distinct parts, variations on a theme that resemble each other, and yet contrast and attack each other. They also hint at actual piano training, actual skill.
At last. The song is at last based on pianos and vocals. We don’t have to worry about that unpredictable, unruly two-year-old of a song that noisy, breaks things, chews on things and says “no” to us. We, as listeners can relax now. The song is becoming more or less what we want it to be.
It’s ironic, then, that this is at last when the singer says, finally and resoundingly, “NO.”
We get little piano flourish that exhibit real skill, syncopated chunks that push the melody forward, grace-note twirls at the end of of soaring, climbing piano builds. Beneath this is a percussion that still won’t behave itself, rolling through the parts of songs that drums don’t normally hang out in, but not drawing too much attention to itself. It’s a use of drums that is wholly unique and quite astounding in its subtlety, if you can catch it. The piano slowly gets higher and higher, than backing down, then climbing again, approaching a climax.
The singer commands: “Now fade.” An infant cries out: “NO!” The singer commands again. The baby cries out louder. The post-adolescent has a demon on one shoulder and an angel on the other, and must decide who he will listen to. Note that this is not a standard fashion in which to approach an existential quandary musically..
Then the piano just gets unacceptably dissonant, progressing through keys and asynchronous chords as the song reaches a crescendo, but the singer/tempter still demands at the same volume: “Baby reading, baby love me.” Hints of the final rebuttal are contained in each of the preceding notes, a final key change in one of the most epic sequences of any song you may ever hear. The artist has conceived and executed one of the great battles of the human experience, the artist vs. The Man, the man vs. the state, the slave vs. the captor, and he responds victoriously, cathartically, furiously: “Run! Run! Run! Run! Run! Run! Run! Run!” The unbound piano piece that was hinted at, built toward, denied for so long is unleashed, and the artist pounds at the keys and screams into the mic in utter anguish.
As things begin to calm down a little bit, he faces the baker’s daughter, the temptress that has pursued him for so long, and tells her that he doesn’t want her water. He knows she only likes in when he begs, so he leaves her waiting. It’s a reclusive analogy, and one probably borne out of hard drugs/hallucinogenics, but one that illustrates The Man as bondage only if the artist binds himself. Now that he refuses to beg, he is no longer bound.
“But a new apartment and a heart don’t make me old/This is spinal rage and lit a page and I’ve been told” The artist is officially an adult, a functioning and normal-appearing human being, but one that still rages against the machine. One that can still “remember the day that I walked away from this empty flight.” The artist faces life with a new set of eyes after reckoning with the enemy. I guess he didn’t exactly win after all, he didn’t really leave the enemy vanquished. If he did, I suppose he would have transcended human form or something inconceivable like that. Something he realizes is impossible.
In Alvin Row’s finale, the artist admits that he’s still a human being, one that must be human and remain human, revealed in the lyrics “But I’m walking on a wire with eight other eyes/Be sure to play the best of your eight other sides.” He, just like the rest of us humans, must adhere to the demands of others, looking in every direction at once to see every set of eyes fixed upon him and bound to their expectations and regulations. And yet he’s still filled with a rage that originates in his spine, infects the deepest part of his being, and he lights a page on fire simply by writing on it.
Then at last the tragic finale, as the artist bids farewell to Alvin Row, the autobiographical version of himself that lives out his manifesto: “I’ll say bye, you say bye/Dear Alvin.” Note the way that Dear Alvin just barely snags the end of the melody right as the rhythm demands it, right as we worry that the melody won’t be resolved at all, the space between “you say bye” and “Dear Alvin.” It echoes the moment at the conclusion of Part II, when the artist asks the troubadour himself if he can hear him. The entire track is so coherent, so singularly conceived and so complete, weaving the same patterns, echoes and meanings into one package that executes the artist’s concept of the infant, the child and the artist utterly holistically. This track isn’t able to just evolve across a 12-minute expanse- it’s able to weave every piece into each other, built from the same pieces with which it is completed.