A friend and I recently met to have coffee and talk about ugly things. She and I write similar material: dense, difficult poems that engage with disgust, undesirability, abjection, violence and loss. Both of us are simultaneously attracted to and repulsed by the material we write about, and occasionally even troubled by it. It was her turn to be revolted by her own work and worried about the potential ethics of putting it out in the world. She asked me what I thought our responsibilities are, as writers of ugly things, to our potential readers. The only answer I have since come to is this: you can lead your readers (or listeners) into any wood, no matter how dark or frightening, however many monsters might lurk in the trees, so long as you act as a guide. You can lead someone into a nightmare, as deep as you’d like, so long as you leave a golden thread for them to follow out again. “Out” may mean back to where they began (though altered by the journey), or straight through to someplace else altogether. Whether readers or listeners, you can lead someone anywhere, no matter how strange, and demand any transformation or bravery, so long as you’re willing to make the journey with them.
W4: The Green Album is a difficult journey. There is a great deal of darkness, and there are certainly wolves (and worse) in these particular Woods. But, as a listener, you are never without a guide. However difficult and painful it may be, this was David Gold’s journey before it was yours, and it is going to hurt him a lot more than it hurts you.
There is much that attracts me about this album. The instrumentation and composition is excellent, and all four members of the band perform admirably; the production on the album is by far the highest quality seen on a Woods of Ypres album to date. But it’s really the vocals, and the lyrics, that captured my attention. These Woods are made of words, and they are very dark indeed, but it is also with words that Woods, and David Gold, promises to lead the listener out again.
One of the first things that struck me about the album the first time I listened to it as a whole was the structure. I could not help but envision it as a classic theatrical tragedy, laid out in three acts, each with a different tone and setting. The emotional timbre of the album shifts in each section as well, and the first section, comprised of the first five songs on the album, is definitely the most devastating.
The pain you get out of The Green Album is equal to the pain you put in. This is established immediately by “Shards of Love (hurt forever),” which is easily the most difficult song on the album. It’s title is perfectly appropriate. Any lingering shrapnel that might be buried in a listener’s heart will bleed afresh. This song stands as a kind of sentry; if you can make it past this first monster, you can make the journey this album demands. “Shards of Love” rip the listener apart.
The Green Album is certainly not all pain and difficulty. There is a great deal of beauty here, and hopefulness too. Four sings into the album is “I Was Buried in Mount Pleasant Cemetery,” which has a sweetness, a softness, and a slight upward lilt to both the sound and the lyrics that becomes real forward momentum as the tempo increases near the end of the song. Whereas “Everything I Touch Turns To Gold (then to coal)” serves as the perfect soundtrack for personal (therapeutic?) destruction, and “By The Time You Read This (I will already be dead)” perfectly encapsulates the feeling of swirling, inescapable negativity, “I Was Buried in Mount Pleasant Cemetery” offers some relief in the promise of an escape, or at last a drastic shift away, from all the pain.
This promise of escape is fully defined and more completely explored in “Into Exile: “Can you get here in 10 days?” I’ve grimly joked in the past that my eventual autobiography will be called It Seemed Like A Good Idea At The Time, and so this piece struck a particularly resonant chord in me. It is a song about sudden decisiveness, movement in any direction out of sheer desperate necessity. It is characterized by motion, by a series of shifts, progressing from sung lyrics to spoken word, from Western to Eastern influence in the music. As Gold embraces his now inevitable exile, he submerges the listener into the strange. In the final moments of this song, the combined roar of the vocals and guitar, evoke the sound of a plane taking off.
The second section, or act, of The Green Album is characterized by the series of pairs formed by the next six songs. Some songs are defined by a frenetic, almost uncontrolled pace; others serve as pauses or respites. This section of the album is constantly shifting, moving between calmness and violence, acceptance and rejection, punching through emotional walls and then sleeping it off.
“Pining (for you)” opens this section, and once again this beginning is a difficult place. The pace of the song drives constantly forward, yet the emotional tone looks back longingly, resisting that forward momentum (though not defying it completely). Lyrically, this is song about absence, all that can no longer be attained or touched, while the music pushes inexorably forward and away from that loss. The other half of this pair is “Wet Leather,” which possesses a similar forward momentum and drive, but instead of yearning, there is violence here, inwardly destructive negativity. There is also some gallows humour here. Whereas “Pining (for you)” has a sense of genuine earnestness to it, “Wet Leather” is tinged with irony, a bourbon-soaked bloody grin.
The next binary pair are perhaps the most closely related to each other, and circle each other as tightly as twinned stars. Each is short, harsh, brutal and uplifting. “Suicide Cargoload (drag that weight!)” is a defiant celebration of effort, the sheer grinding labour of fighting through each day while healing, each moment of grief in an unfamiliar place. It is also a triumphant song. Not once does Gold suggest that putting down this unimaginable weight is an option. “Halves and Quarters” is another defiant statement, a marker of success and stubbornness. As someone who has taken herself off both painkillers and antidepressants at different horrible points in my own life, I immediately recognized the inherent victory celebrated in this piece: the need for smaller and smaller doses, cutting pills into halves and quarters. Both songs in this pair do not shy way from the horrendous difficulty of the tasks they commemorate – pushing emotional weight, abandoning a chemical support. In fact, Gold draws additional attention to that difficulty by using harsh vocals. Both of these songs coach the listener through pain management techniques.
The final pair of songs in this section of the album represents The Green Album‘s softest moments. “You Are Here With Me (in this sequence of dreams)” may be my favourite song on the album. Showcasing the addition of a lovely classical guitar (courtesy of Musk Ox’s Nathanael Larochette), this song unfolds like a lullaby, folding and unfolding in gentle lyrical circles, soft as any cocoon. This sleep, this dream, promises not just relief from pain but a return to real comfort. “Retrosleep In The Morning Calm” reintroduces a poignant edge, the clarity of a morning. Whereas the opening notes of the classical guitar in “You Are Here With Me (in this sequence of dreams)” are tender and forgiving, the electric guitar opening immediately reminds the listener that there is still scar tissue, still sore places, that can’t be eased by the comfort of any bed. Both songs hold the promise of acceptance, the slow beginning of a deeper healing.
“Don’t Open The Wounds/Skywide Armspread” represents the emotional high point of The Green Album. While still constructed as a (grim?) reminder to protect one’s self from further harm, the final moments of the song unfold as a triumphant return to one’s self – whole if not healed, bold if not unbroken, and able to experience the first true moment of joy after a disaster. David Gold has finally lead the listener into a clearing, an open place with some real sunlight, for the first time. Listening to this album for the first time, I felt a great sense of relief when I reached this point, as though I had made it, had finally been lead out of the Woods and through to the other side.
But The Green Album is not done with the listener yet. There is another shift in tone and tempo here, as the third act of this tragedy begins. The darkness in this section possesses and entirely different texture, and there is a different pattern to this tangle of trees. It seems that this section of the album marks a return to the Western world, a return from exile in Korea, and that this return is in many ways unsettling. The world left behind after the first section of the album is still intact, a fact that David Golds wants us to feel is strange bordering on perverse. The next few songs in particular (“Natural Technologies,” “Mirror Reflection & The Hammer Reinvention,” and “Our Union (in limbo)”) give me the impression that Gold would have been far more comfortable to find Canada had been completely razed and built anew, and to find it still coldly standing drags the album back to a slightly melancholy place. There is a great deal of positivity too, and energy, and sheer defiance – particularly in “Natural Technologies,” which is a celebration of physical, sexual vitality and a return to desire, and also contains some of the most intense music of the album. But gradually the songs slow, cool, and begin to grope towards acceptance, a peacefulness that is not afraid of a little lingering pain.
Just as The Green Album seemed to promise, finally, to lead the listener out of the Woods, I found myself lost. The final song on the album, “Move On!,” left me behind right when I was sure I could see a glimmer of light through the branches. The song is good, and grim, and energetic, and manages to be both a little funny and merciless all at the same time. In many ways, it ends the album perfectly. However, it is not a song that I felt I could connect to in the same way I did the rest of the album, as both a woman and the person who, in my own tragedy, was the one left rather than the one leaving. This is no fault of The Green Album; it did mean, however, that it ceased to guide me. Rather than finishing the journey and emerging unscathed, I have felt lost in the green ever since.
I can’t say I mind. After all, these Woods are lovely, dark and deep.