Images of the wreckage. New Age music‘s peaceful thrum. Pathos builds. Cue voice-over: ”In the wake of 911 . . .“ You throw your Percocet and whiskey bottle at the television set. If you hear another commentator begin a piece with that thought, you will scream. But: Two new records, Neil Young’s Are You Passionate? and Loren Connors‘ The Departing of a Dream, directly engage the aftermath of that day’s disaster, so [assumes anchorman face]: ”In the wake of 911, will music continue dreaming?“
A few days after the tragedy, composer Karlheinz Stockhausen made this pronouncement:
”What happened there [in New York City] . . . is the greatest work of art ever. That characters can bring about in one act what we in music cannot dream of, that people practice madly for 10 years, completely, fanatically, for a concert and then die. That is the greatest work of art for the whole cosmos. I could not do that. Against that, we, composers, are nothing.“
First, understand what he said. He was voicing respect for the scale of and commitment behind the terrorists‘ dream, not their intentions. Second, understand the historical circumstance Stockhausen comes out of, that being the AustrianGerman tradition of overblown orchestral music (Richard Wagner, Richard Strauss et al.), music with powerful rhetoric behind it. Wagner died in 1883, long before the Nazis, but he was Adolf Hitler’s favorite songwriter, and his Teutonic revelries were used to inspire Third Reich rallies. Since 1977, Stockhausen himself has been working on a seven-part opera cycle entitled Licht, the latest installment of which is ”about love and the temptation to easily mix races and religion without foreseeing the consequences.“
The point is, Stockhausen has a keen understanding of how artists‘ dreams prophesy the future. He was distressed not only that the world’s most powerful music (uh, his) became ”nothing“ after the well-choreographed horror of 911, but that other artists might be unnerved by that day‘s events. Alan Jackson and Enya might stop dreaming. And if music became ”nothing,“ and accepted that fate, what would the world start to sound like?
On the surface, the only thing Loren Connors and Neil Young share is their age. (Both are in their 50s.) The former toils in obscurity; the latter is a superstar, albeit a faded one. Dig deeper, however, and you’ll discover they share a common aptitude for dreaming big. Both overcame obstacles that would seem to frustrate any possibility of a musical career. Young, a survivor of polio, is inspiring in part because he became a pop star with a limited set of tools. His single-note guitar solos bludgeon all doubters; his thin, reedy voice floats shakily as he hits the high notes. Connors impresses just by his will to continue playing. In 1992, he was diagnosed with Parkinson‘s disease, a degenerative nerve disorder (the wrong illness for a guitarist who depends on the vibrato of his fingertips). Add to that the fact that Connors played for nearly 25 years before he gained an appreciable audience, and you have two kings of overreach. If anyone could make music that could succor a sad world, it’s these two, right?
Neil Young is an archetype of the singer-songwriter, having recorded more than 40 records, and consistently exploring and invigorating two signature styles — teeth-grindingly loud guitar rock and gentle folk. One of the more impressive qualities Young has always possessed is his ability to sort through hard emotions in real time. Just listen to 1975‘s Tonight’s the Night and its druggy laments about guitarist Danny Whitten and roadie Bruce Berry, two newly dead friends. Perhaps the poignancy of past work is what makes his new album sound so spiritless.
Are You Passionate?‘s cliched cover features a rose laid over a camouflage coat and a photo of a couple in a romantic pose, and that clues us to Young’s ambitions: love in wartime, topicality, another chance at the Billboard Top 10. What we get, though, are unresolved emotion and a narrator revisiting romantic mistakes. Second song: ”I‘d like to shake your hand, DisappointmentLooks like you win againBut this time might be the last.“ Third song: ”Wish you told me by and bythat my life would come to thisthat I’d have to find a wayto let things gothat my friends would turn to foesand my love could come to blows.“ (Would you want to attend a wake with this man?) The music, too, is flat-out awkward. Young‘s been touring with Booker T & the MGs since the ’90s, but here, their first time backing him on record, the midtempo rhythmic pulse and happy vamping are all wrong. This is the band responsible for many of the best ‘60s and ’70s soul records on Stax, but they make Young sound like a despondent middle-aged bachelor doing karaoke over old Sam Cooke loops.
Yet the worst fears of Young‘s fans don’t come true. Are You Passionate? isn‘t an echo of previous political positions. (Quoth Young in the ’80s: ”Vote Canadian, vote Reagan!“) But ”Let‘s Roll,“ inspired by Todd Beamer’s final words as he rushed the cabin of Flight 93, was obviously written in a fit of raw patriotic fervor. One of the first post-911 songs (rush-released to radio in early December), it‘s no ”Tonight’s the Night.“ Featuring an ominous funk-metal groove, it‘s basically a cheese-ball power ballad without the crunch. While the record’s overall ambition is admirable, and it marks an interesting moment in Young‘s catalog (dismissing it could be as dangerous as slagging Dylan’s Christian records), you won‘t like it.
Though he’s been self-releasing albums in editions of 100 since the late ‘70s, Loren Connors didn’t have actual listeners until the 1990s, when he became a cause celebre in New York‘s downtown music scene. (Sonic Youth guitarist Thurston Moore — a Young acolyte — personally reissued Connors’ earliest work.) It‘s impressive enough that he has played through disease and disinterest. More amazing is the fact that he released upwards of 30 records in the past decade alone, albeit mostly on tiny experimental labels and vanity imprints. As with any artist that prolific, you need to ignore large swaths of it (thumbs down to his early work and the noisier stuff), but some of his music (1999’s Airs, especially) is worth falling for, hard. Listen to his solo-electric-guitar albums back to back, and you might think, ”Heard one, heard them all,“ but what repetition!
Connors‘ music is uniformly dark — persistent illness takes its toll — but it’s always been hopeful and resonant too, hovering simultaneously over several different shades. It‘s like an audio analogue to the canvases of Mark Rothko, a painter he cites as his chief influence. The color is the blues, not because the music plays with the 12-bar form but because that’s the mood, like tears suspended in a cloud that never breaks. Perhaps his music sounds like it does because of how his afflicted hands shake.
Unfortunately, Connors‘ new album, The Departing of a Dream, shares the flaws of Are You Passionate? The first eight tracks embody the record’s title and implication: one part aspiration, three parts doom. Dungeonlike nocturnal sounds accompany the guitar. But the album‘s closing suite, ”For NY 91101: The Silence and Sorrow,“ is less pessimistic. It aptly captures the surreal appearance of downtown New York two weeks after the disaster — dust caught behind storefront glass; tourists breaking into tears; garbage trucks with the words ”Airplane Parts Only“ driving by, matter-of-factly accomplishing their work. One wonders if this album represents Connors’ move to an even darker sound — a nasty aftertaste he‘s chosen to live with.
The Young and Connors records leave you with the impression that even the musicians most prepared to deal with grief are crumbling at the crossroads. Not good. Sustaining dreams isn’t just the key to great music. It‘s our capacity to actualize dreams that separates us from the animals. Music has to continue dreaming.
There is, however, a bright spot on Young’s record. Cue up the title track over a 911 video montage: firefighters, Rudolph Giuliani with a NYPD baseball cap, teary-eyed children waving American flags, all that shit. The guitar starts suddenly — smoldering — and Young sounds like he‘s young again. It’s classic rock, but he could convince you that he‘s an R&B star when he sings:
Are you passionate?
Are you livin’ like you talk
Are you dreamin‘ how
That you’re goin‘ to the top?
Are you negative?
In a world that never stops
Turnin’ on you
Turnin‘ on me
Turnin’ on you
Answer the question.