On Low: Dialectical Seeing and Sweet Sunflowers

(this short piece was written for my friend Ian Mathers’ 40th birthday, a great music writer and human. You can find the original post here)

Recently, I’ve been thinking a lot about this perfect review of the most recent Godspeed You! Black Emperor record. I’m transfixed on the writer’s ability to capture GY!BE’s melancholy, the tragedy of art like this. GY!BE serve as a diagnostic echo vibrating painfully in our contemporary moment as if to kindly but truthfully say ‘we tried to warn you’. As modern capitalism attempts to draw attention away from its hemorrhages while the blood moved up past our chests, around our necks, and over our mouths, it feels like any observation of its severity is, at best, triage. The ails of the world, the pain of so many marginalized by this mode of production, appear as a bruise or a blood-filled cough. For our current moment, ruptures are not just the sign of external traumas, but also a long, long period of internal bleeding. 

Reflecting on this review has led me back to the work of Low, particularly the absolute classic Things We Lost in the Fire. The entire album feels like a long sigh during a period of great duress, a point in which tragedy, sorrow, and melancholy require a quiet release that comes from within. These small cathartic exhales capture years in seconds; our own lives and those of who we’ve lost flashes before us in mere moments. The grand questions that emerge from the experience of life and death intersect violently with our personal struggles and tragedies. To quote my favorite song by Low, “underneath the star of David, a hundred years behind my eyes.” 

The interplay of life and death in Sunflower is an important reminder that possibility is born from reflection on the failed projects of the past. The person who mourns, for those who have passed on, for lost possibility, for a horizon of opportunity beyond what we currently can see, is a ragpicker at daybreak, feeling around for scraps as the fragility of humanity flutters in the wind. This idea, borrowed from Walter Benjamin, is the means through which melancholy and mourning become the vehicle for change. As we wander through the end of history, our shadows are cast long across the ruins at our feet. The dawn of the day of the revolution is life beyond death and the beautiful, poetic melancholy of Low reminds us that when we look closely, we can see something poking up through the rubble of the past: sweet, sweet sunflowers. 

Drowning in the river of blood inside the belly of the beast, the melancholic vision of Godspeed mixes with the soft grief of Low. As we struggle for air, we fashion our reflections on lives lost into a vehicle that leads us home and press out toward the infinite, magnificent possibilities beyond our imagination. 

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