Though often in hypocritical manners, our modernity constantly affirms life, to the point that the artistic images of death that used to populate the world three centuries ago and before are no longer really welcome in public. Ossuaries and crypts are now the domain of curiosity and thrill-seeking adventurers, having been demystified from our mythologies in order to paint death not as moment of transcendence but solely as natural end. The vanitas genre of still life painting, which so moved 17th century Dutch artists, relayed a mixed message to all their rich patrons and the emergent bourgeoisie: never forget that you, too, will die, and that your new beginning is also but a handful of dust. Jozef Van Wissem, enchanted by the Cindy Wright drawing that graces the cover of Nobody Living Can Ever Make Me Turn Back, has crafted a comparable message, one in which the presence of death is not the same as the absence of life. Just like moths such as the one on the cover become fascinated with light to the point of damaging selflessness, the folly of our vanity relates to the mystification of something else, the articulation of a heroic mythology of modernity in which we’ve forgotten, in our progress-based historical anxiety, that all of this has to end, just like us.
It is, of course, no coincidence that Van Wissem plays an early Renaissance instrument and that his style is importantly influenced by the more academic side of the music world of reconstructions. Nobody Living is a memento mori riff upon sacred music, folklorized into something that surely the Church would have found irritating a few centuries back, but that makes sense within a context that pretends to have voided the world of the divine. How folklorized? Well, consider that the title comes from the penultimate line of Woody Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land”, thus making a connection about transcendence articulated through the popular understanding that death is the great equalizer, that death, at its best, is also a forger of community. The lute might be the only instrument at play, but when Van Wissem’s voice intones the lyrics like a prayer, we know there is a commonality that threads our consciousness together – not all of us get to live, but all of us do get to experience death, one way or another. So far, perhaps so grim, but Nobody Living is not a dark and somber album. On the contrary, it is bright, its relatively simple folk melodies full of joy and hope, and even at its darkest, like in the 12-minute dirge “Our Bones Lie Scattered Before the Pit”, there is a tranquil warmth that prevents any kind of oppressive sentiment.
In “Your Days Gone Like a Shadow”, Van Wissem sings “How did we come / to this conclusion?” as a fast-paced happy lute riff plays and a warm electronic ambience starts to coagulate. By the end of the track, he sings “There is no / there is no / no conclusion”: decay is but a process, and if decadence is the opposite of progress, it is just as never-ending, an imagination not dependent on any idea of kingdoms to come but realized in the here and now, a down-to-earth materialism that in the moth that fails to capture the light it so desires finds an echo of the possibilities of liberty without a future. This is why what is being sung about here is not a ‘death cult’, a perversion of the death drive; just like the moth continually realizes itself in its transience, so can we, without the need to kill or bring death to anyone. Nobody Living is bursting with love for transience and the idea of coming together with the freedom to think of death without fear, without the arrogance of those who think that in history or in their objects they are being immortalized. Van Wissem is that Dutch artist reminding us that there’s no point if you can’t see that death is integral to any and all vitality. “From the end of the world / I call you”, says “The Conversation”, so we might as well heed and have a serious dialogue with the dust that we’ll become. (David Murrieta)