Sunday, March 24, 2013

Motherland

Motherland (from the album Motherland)

Where in hell can you go
far from the things that you know
far from the sprawl of concrete
that keeps crawling its way
about 1,000 miles a day? 


Take one last look behind
commit this to memory and mind
don't miss this wasteland, this terrible place
when you leave
keep your heart off your sleeve


Motherland cradle me
close my eyes
lullaby me to sleep
keep me safe
lie with me
stay beside me
don't go, don't you go 


O, my five & dime queen
tell me what have you seen?
the lust and the avarice
the bottomless, the cavernous greed
is that what you see? 


Motherland cradle me
close my eyes
lullaby me to sleep
keep me safe
lie with me
stay beside me
don't go 


It's your happiness I want most of all
and for that I'd do anything at all, o mercy me!
if you want the best of it or the most of all
if there's anything I can do at all 


Now come on shot gun bride
what makes me envy your life?
faceless, nameless, innocent, blameless and free,
what's that like to be? 


Motherland cradle me
close my eyes
lullaby me to sleep
keep me safe
lie with me
stay beside me
don't go, don't you go




The Paris premiere of Igor Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring was, by most accounts, a total disaster. Things started off peacefully enough, but before long the audience grew aggressive and eventually violent, both towards the orchestra and towards each other. Several people ended up being ejected by the police. Throughout all this madness, the music and the dancers just kept going, never allowing themselves to be interrupted. But it’s been said by some that after the performance, Stravinsky himself was in tears. 

There have been several theories over the years regarding what exactly caused this uproar. Most are pretty reasonable, but there’s one theory that I’ve heard that’s particularly intriguing - maybe The Rite of Spring broke people’s brains.

Think about it: Most everyone who is alive right now has grown up in the era of moving pictures. Film scores, particularly in suspense pictures, have always queued us up for danger by playing with discordant sounds. If done well, the film and score work together to heighten (some would say manipulate) our feelings of tension and anticipation. We’re used to it. We can handle it. But maybe that’s not the way it was for the audience that first heard The Rite of Spring.

The audiences that The Rite of Spring debuted to, during the era of 19th century romanticism, were used to a certain type of music – romantic music, beautiful, lush, pleasing. The Rite of Spring starts this way but then quickly and sharply veers into discord. It makes you tense and uneasy. It’s not calming, nor is it entirely pleasing to the ear. It was completely new to audiences at the time, and maybe they just couldn’t handle it. Maybe these new sounds were too overwhelming. They affected the emotions of the audience in a way they weren’t able to process. So they did what most people do when in a state of panic – they beat each other up.

This theory is based on…well, nothing really. It’s pure conjecture as far as I can tell. But I absolutely love this idea. I want this to be true. I want to imagine old women in their symphony clothes clubbing each other with their purses and canes, people acting completely unreasonably because the power of music has overtaken them. There’s something beautiful about that, even if it might be buried a few layers deep.

Now I should make this clear - Natalie Merchant’s music has never caused me to break out into violence, punch old ladies or engage in any other sort of deviant behavior (yet...) But there are a small handful of songs in Natalie’s catalogue that cause me to feel overwhelmed. Motherland is one of those songs. It’s a song I love deeply and yet I almost instinctively skip the song immediately if it comes onto my stereo. I’m usually just not ready for it. And it’s simply too good a song to play in the background, to be wasted on just any moment.  

I think Motherland is the most beautiful and devastating love song Natalie has ever written. I know that may seem absurd to some people. (I can almost hear you shouting, “Beloved Wife!” at your monitors at this very moment.) But I stand by my opinion. Natalie sings Motherland with an adoration that I honestly believe is unmatched on any other song she’s written.  

Writing about Motherland is tricky for me. It’s like trying to describe why you are in love with someone. Putting words to those kinds of feelings tends to cheapen, or at least make you feel like you’ve cheapened, the intensity of your feelings. For that reason, I’ve been hesitating to write about Motherland. In fact, I started writing this piece about 5 months ago and ended up abandoning it and this blog in general for awhile because I didn’t really know how to finish it. (Also, I’m lazy.) So instead of dragging this on into infinity, I’ll just paint a few strokes about why this song moves me so.

Whenever I watch a musician perform live, I can’t help but wonder about their life, the simple mundanities of it. I find myself thinking, What do they do when they’re not on stage? Before their concert, before rehearsals or sound checks, what did they do? Did they sit in their hotel room reading a book? Did they walk around the city? Did they work on writing new songs? The only thing I can know with absolute certainty is the obvious - traveling musicians spend many long hours on the road. And even in a bus full of other people, I can’t imagine that doesn’t feel lonely at times. Following 1,000 miles of concrete every day, as it rips through everything natural and warm and real could make anyone feel isolated. I have seen very little of the world myself, but I have no difficulty imagining that there is a lot of wasteland to see. 

What’s most interesting, and moving, to me about Motherland’s lyrics is the different perspectives Natalie seems to sing from. Consider these lines:

Motherland cradle me
close my eyes
lullaby me to sleep
keep me safe
lie with me
stay beside me
don't go

These words pierce me. The plea for comfort here feels so truly like the words of a child. To be so vulnerable as to beg for protection, for embrace…sometimes it’s hard for me to remember what it felt like to be so unabashed in pleading for a mother’s love. Natalie’s ability to put into words her deep connection and humble dependence on her home is so moving to me. And I wonder at what moments or in what ways she feels the fulfillment of this plea. Is there really a way for her Motherland to make her feel as safe and secure in it and with it as she longs to be? I doubt it could be so.

But it’s when the roles change in this song that I find myself most moved.

It's your happiness I want most of all  
for that I'd do anything at all, o mercy me!
if you want the best of it or the most of all
if there's anything I can do at all

These words change the direction of the song from plea for protection to vow of protection. It’s as if the child becomes the parent. I cannot hear the words “It’s your happiness I want most of all and for that I’d do anything at all” without getting emotional. What could you possibly say to anyone, or in the case of this song, anything, that is a better testament to your devotion?

There are a lot of works of art – paintings, novels, films, etc. - that can be described as great, and even more could be described as really good. Not many, though, come to genuinely be regarded as masterpieces. Natalie has written some great songs and many really good songs, but Motherland is her masterpiece. I’ve listened to it more times than I can count and I can never find a flaw in it. I absolutely believe it is the best song she’s ever written. After that, I’m not sure what more I can say.

*****

Before I leave you, I’d like to say thanks to all of you who’ve been e-mailing me over the past months and encouraging me get back to writing. I’ve felt bad about abandoning the blog for so long, but sometimes real life takes charge and my muse gets away from me. I hope to write more often going forward. Thanks for your patience and support. As always, please feel free to share your thoughts on this post in the comments section or via e-mail.

Beautiful performance of Motherland by Natalie and a student at Perkins School for the Blind: