Certain albums lend themselves to certain natural environments: home listening, club, car ride, airline trip. Ütopiya? is the perfect album for a stroll through an urban environment. I realized this last week while walking in Manhattan with my iPod. Unlike other personal listening devices (Beats by Dre, for example), an iPod allows in the sounds of the outside world, which helps one not to get hit by a car. In this case, it means that a certain fluidity is established between the various languages in dialogue, both inside and outside the music. For those who miss the vocal samples on Godspeed You! Black Emperor’s new album, Ütopiya? is the place to turn. There’s even a spoken word track, G.W. Sok’s reading of a poem from Nazim Hikmet Ran on the album’s first single, “On Living.” My eyes can’t get enough of the trees … they’re so hopeful, so green.
When Sok intones, “the point is not to surrender,” the music swiftly kicks into high gear: purposeful, powerful, unbroken. It’s the first explosion of a simmering set that more often seems coiled, hiding its menace in folds of neo-noir. The addition of Gareth Davis on bass clarinet is a huge contributor. One might call this darkjazz, but it’s more of a free jazz/post-rock hybrid, at times resembling one more than the other, bursting forth in thick clouds of something resembling doom (especially on “Someone Must Shout That We Will Build the Pyramids”). These timbres suggest protest, upheaval, revolution in the streets, and indeed some of the inspiration comes from political unrest, not just in France but in Greece and other nations visited by the collective. The building volumes and viscosities suggest voices joined by other voices until they can no longer be ignored. Yet unlike many of their contemporaries (including GY!BE), Oiseaux-Tempête holds onto a modicum of hope. As an interviewee intones on “Fortune Teller,” “no matter how much oppression there is from the state … at any period in history, somehow a magical community happens.”
Oiseaux-Tempête is itself one of these magical communities, a collective related to FareWell Poetry, Le Reveil des Tropiques, and through Frédéric D. Oberland, The Rustle of the Stars. The fluid borders provide an ongoing exchange of ideas; the international travels open new frontiers of understanding. The album’s shortest track, “Yallah Karga (Dance Song)”, provides the largest metaphor. Filled with ambient sound ~ sirens, street traffic, conversation, Arabic song ~ the track might be identified with one city or any city, as multicultural as the world has become. In parts of Manhattan, for example, this might be a collection of sounds within or without one’s personal plastic earplugs. And this seems to be the collective’s point: that cultures can be preserved in a melting pot, and need not be eradicated in the service of a new blended identity.
Is such hope unrealistic? Pluralism is not an easy concept, and the interrogative title Ütopiya? poses this very question, as does a guest speaker on “Portals Of Tomorrow”. And yet, should one embrace the opposite concept – that cultures must be preserved at all costs, even that of the eradication or expulsion of other cultures – one will find few happy antecedents. As Auden so famously writes,
There is no such thing as the State
And no one exists alone;
Hunger allows no choice
To the citizen or the police;
We must love one another or die.
But let’s not end on such a dour note. The final sound of the album is one of friendship: of drinks poured into two glasses. It’s a sound that everyone can recognize, and all can embrace.