This is an album for the end of the world. Katsuhiko Maeda writes, “we are dancing on the shaking ground … until the end.” World’s End Girlfriend‘s album is so massive, so apocalyptic, and yes, so contagious that it becomes a bittersweet apocalypse.
The name of the album reflects the name of the artist, and vice versa. The year is dying down; the world is dying around us. This is our last review of the year. Everything matches. But how will we go out? Maeda suggests that we “play in emitted light and darkness”. One thinks of classic end-of world movies, especially Miracle Mile, in which a man intercepts a phone call and learns that the world will end in 70 minutes, which just happens to be the length of this album. The nukes are in the air; there’s no time left. Who will you call? With whom will you spend your last minutes? Will you go out in a bar, in a nightclub, in a blaze of destruction?
More importantly, is there love in the universe? Is there God, and is God benign? His fingerprints are all over this recording, from the transcendent choirs to the sense of scale to the actual words “God” and “light”, repeated as if questions rather than answers. Something larger than us has set this chain into motion.
This is no time for subtlety, but worry not ~ Maeda has never been subtle. He is, however, tender in parts (“Plein Soleil”, “Void”) and complex throughout. It’s easy to overlook just how hard it is to mesh orchestral and electronic music with progressive and post-rock without losing the plot. And yet all of the threads form an incredible tapestry, representing all of the major emotions, and a few minor ones as well: resignation, wistfulness, regret. The stars are falling; the skies are rolling back as a scroll.
The violence increases as the album progresses: signs in the sky, tumult on the earth. Gears grind as if the oil has run out; prayers rise to the heavens. Yet in some locales, life continues as normal, ordinary humans trying to squeeze the goodness out of one more day. As Czeslaw Milosz writes:
On the day the world ends
A bee circles a clover,
A fisherman mends a glimmering net.
People cannot believe it. And yet, there is no other end of the world (“A Song on the End of the World”, translated by Anthony Milosz). Through it all, the frenzied orchestra plays its heart out: the soprano strains her voice, the violinist snaps her strings, the drummer breaks his sticks, all in vain and not in vain, the final requiem, the final countdown, the last chance to make an ephemeral impact, all the more powerful because this is the end of kingdoms and kings, of strivings and searchings, of petty angers and emotional hoardings. Every continent, every achievement, every battle of marriage and nation crumpled up like a child’s paper doll, thrown in the fire, turned to ash, then the ash blown away, then the wind blown away, then life itself.
Last Waltz is likely to inspire strong emotions. The album is a statement and a warning: there is more going on than we can possibly imagine, not only in heavens but in each other. In the next hundred or so years, we are all going to die, if not collectively, then individually. We each face a little apocalypse. Imagine you had only 70 minutes left. Then imagine that you have only today. Then ask, “am I living the life I want to live?” The album reflects on the “world after 3.11” (the date of the Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami and Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster), while the oft-quoted Revelation 3:11 reads, “I am coming soon. Hold on to what you have, so that no one will take your crown” (NIV). Again, everything matches. The universe is comprised of patterns seen and unseen.
And yet, given all this, the album ends with a “Girl.” Was it always about a girl? Is life as simple as love? Ecclesiastes once wrote, “This is all that I have learned: God made us plain and simple, but we have made ourselves very complicated” (Ecclesiastes 7:29, TEV). Is there anything purer than doing whatever it takes to get to the one you love for a last waltz? This is the theme of Miracle Mile, and it seems to be the theme of this album as well. In the words of Leonard Cohen:
Oh let me see your beauty when the witnesses are gone
Let me feel you moving like they do in Babylon
Show me slowly what I only know the limits of
Dance me to the end of love
Dance me to the end of love.