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The only song on the album not written entirely by Tiersen, the lyrics of Chapter 19 consist of–as its title suggests–an excerpt from the nineteenth chapter of Sexus by Henry Miller, the first book in The Rosy Crucifixtion trilogy. A meandering, shuffling group of chamber instruments accompany the near-monotone recitation, apparently rising and falling in intensity along with the words. Sometimes Tiersen speaks alone, sometimes he is joined by another voice speaking in much the same manner; the ghostly backing vocals will not return until the next track.
Reading the passage itself, it is easy to see why it took on special significance to Tiersen. The first few lines read like a condemnation of the robotic routine most people’s lives fall into, speaking of “Dressed up cadavers” who are “Wound up like alarm clocks” and “Die like box-office receipts”. What follows is an extremely poetic and highly metaphorical description of sex, as well as the implication that the beauty of this biological act derives from the fact that it provides a respite and a sanctuary from the essential coldness of the world. Miller, and now Tiersen, speak of “A hope which is physical as well as spiritual,” foreshadowing the closing track which also paints the act of sexual union as a transcendent experience, something which can momentarily cause a kind of enlightenment. The final lines are that epiphany, that moment where it seems as though the universe is understandable on a fundamental level: “There is a wheel, there are spokes, and there is a hub. And in the center of the hub there is exactly nothing.” With that, the more driving music ends, and our contemplation of that phrase is supplicated with a harpsichord-lead coda, a soundtrack for our return to the ground.
“We’re following a road of pain/We’re all running away to death/Please, come back and hold me tight/Let’s burn and burn again/All in all, we will be ashes/Floating in the winds…” The album’s magnificent centerpiece, Ashes is where the fear and hope from the previous songs merge into something nearly overwhelming. Staggeringly beautiful, it still shares the album’s slightly morbid obsession with death, approaching the subject this time not with trepidation, but with acceptance.
From the first piano chords and soft strings in the intro, the song perfectly finds an emotional area between paralyzing sadness and profound joy, and pushes that ambivalence as far as it can possibly go. The way we all feel about our impending expiration date is so complicated that it’s rare that we ever feel it very strongly: we keep it in the background of our minds not out of fear, but because the unstable mix of emotions doesn’t tend to be sustainable under pressure. Simple things, like fear, or anger, or depression, those can be felt strongly. But this remarkable piece of music is somehow able to walk a psychological tightrope long enough to develop that duality into something passionate and great, holding on to both the sadness and the joy even into its highest, most powerful moments.
The epic, existential sing-alongs of the first two tracks are back here: the lines quoted in the previous paragraph are the chorus we work up to in a manner familiar to us now. They are sung to an archaic-sounding melody, a tune belonging to no genre or tradition, something conjured up out of nothing for the sole purpose of capturing the nuances of this song and boiling them down into something shockingly simple. Droning strings and delicately picked banjos and mandolins ornament the track’s piano-based center, and eventually the rock instruments and vocals come in all at once when the song achieves its destiny. At five minutes, both of the following songs are greater in length, but not quite in accomplishment. This is the song that wins the album’s internal battle: the remaining tracks take this newly-found semi-peace to even wider realms, but the absorption of everything that plagues this album’s troubled soul was done for them by Ashes. It’s only up from here.
Till The End
In some ways the counterpoint to the album’s title track, Till The End unites Tiersen’s followers under a different banner. “We will be there/Till the end.” Again, the exact meaning of this phrase is anyone’s guess, but there are distinct possibilities. My favored theory is this one: Since Tiersen made peace with his own death in the previous track, he is now able to cease his introspection and look to humanity as a whole, and its future. If it is noble in one’s own life to see things through until it’s all over, maybe that proves true of our entire species. If humans are ever finally eradicated, and the process of life leading to death that this entire album is fixated on is repeated for the last time, then that same process will have played out on a massive scale the exact way it does for each of us. Infancy, life, death. Ashes found a poetry and a joy in that progression for a single person, Till The End finds joy in the same progression on a near-cosmic level.
Or perhaps Tiersen is speculating that our species will never die out as long as the universe exists. We are the first animal to leave the planet, to leave the food chain, to take medicine and science to the level we have, and many other things set us apart from our closest relatives. Maybe the “End” is a reference to the ultimate collapse of the cosmos, and the song is suggesting that only then will our race truly be gone. A bold statement, and perhaps unlikely, but if it proves true (As, I suppose, it is to be hoped) then it is one more reason not to fear one’s own death. What does it matter if the life you lived was part of the chronicle of a life-form that eventually lasted as long as the stars? It is sad to think of everything that we know or could conceive of suddenly being crushed out of existence, but at the same time, it is a strangely comforting idea that we would never leave our planet or its neighbors empty, until the end of times.
There are no other words, but the song represents the album’s widest array of influences: beginning with a field recording, it proceeds to traverse several different genres over the course of its seven minute length. For a minute and a half, the track sounds like honest-to-Glob drone music, with guitar feedback delayed out of all recognition washing over the mix, with some random, unidentifiable clatters in the background that sound like people in the studio setting up for what is to come. Then, in a wonderful transition, a tambourine starts a steady rhythm, followed quickly by a broadly strummed acoustic guitar, leading other instruments in a folky march. Soon the lyrics follow, the familiar echoing vocals sturdily shouldering humanity’s burdens down through the centuries, repeating the phrase over and over as though they really will be there until the end of the world. Beneath them, the music gradually morphs into a post-rock rave-up that’s all rolling drums and wailing guitars.
All of a sudden, it stops. Everything cuts out save Tiersen’s piano, and he reprises the earlier music on his own. Bit by bit, a chugging string section joins him, and we get a coda in the minimalist, new-classical style that has served Tiersen well for so many years. The music again reaches an apex, and then abruptly stops. It’s as though the song has been reprised, but stripped of all the layers which obscure the purity of the song’s message. This is a very important moment: it shows us that the album’s power derives from its content, not just its rich sound or its dense arrangements. Even if you cut almost everything out, even the lyrics, there is still something really there at the heart of this album, and this coda highlights that plain as day. And just in time, too, because it primes us perfectly for the next and final song.
At over seven minutes, and with a title that will get you thrown in jail if you say it on live television, F*ck Me is, fittingly enough, Dust Lane’‘s purest pop song. It’s actually kind of amazing. It is impossible not to smile at least a little during this song, even coming less than an hour after the existential horrors of Dark Stuff and the generally unsettling tone most of the album possesses. Proving once and for all that there is no word in the English that is objectively profane, the final track is a tender love song, and the perfect answer to the despairing questions asked in the previous songs.
After forty minutes of Tiersen either mumbling or being lost in washes of backing vocals, here we finally hear him sing: his voice is shy, and shaky; even here, he is joined by Gaëlle Kerrien on the first verse. “I know you know we’re all falling into/A deep oblivion/I know you know we’re all falling into/A never-ending mess.” Here, on the brightest moment of the album, is where Tiersen plainly articulates the worries permeating the other songs. Which, again, is fitting: it doesn’t matter anymore, because in the end, this album brings itself independently to the conclusion most rock n’ rollers take for granted: human connection cancels out fear of death. “So, we have to take care/And share it, share it, share it/So let’s get undressed/We need to feel it/Please, let’s get undressed/We need to live it.” Our eventual passing from this life, and the apprehension we have about it, is rendered meaningless when contrasted with the joy of living, and the greatest joy is love.
On the first chorus, our narrator implores “F*ck me/And make me come again,” but between the gorgeous arrangement and the contrast with the later lyrics, there is nothing really crass going on here. The character in the song hasn’t quite seen the light yet: he’s looking for a distraction, something to take his mind off of, well, everything else explored on the album. He sees sex as a physical pleasure sufficient enough to tear his mind away from all the troubling thoughts from earlier on Dust Lane. But as the instrumentation builds, the words from the first verse take on a different meaning, and by the time the second chorus comes around, the desperation has turned to triumph: “Love me/And make me love again” is what the narrator says now, and there’s nothing we can do but sing with him.
All the musical heft that the album previously put into anger or sadness or deliberate ambiguity is now put into pure bliss, as Tiersen lends his melody chops to a tune that completely sells lyrics that nobody else could pull off. There is no big dynamic shift here, just a gradual crescendo which, appropriately, reaches a peak and then relaxes into a post-coital coda, a sweet, memorable flute phrase eventually fading out into the same indefinable sounds we heard way back at the beginning of Amy. The journey is over, the arc completed, we have had our faith in life as we know it shaken and then reaffirmed. Not a bad way to spend an hour.
Like In The Aeroplane Over The Sea, Pink Moon, and Astral Weeks, Dust Lane is the sound of a supremely talented man grappling with ideas bigger than himself, tapping into something unknowable in the process. It stands as one of the great musical pieces on the subject of death, and yet, in the end, is a complete rejection of giving death so much as the time of day. It is moving, haunting, tear-jerking, but ultimately invigorating, and uplifting. Rather than wallowing in sadness, it deconstructs it, revealing it to have a necessary purpose, which is defeated by refusing to move on from it. It is not simply a great album, in this hectic time that we find ourselves in, I would be prepared to assert that it is a necessary album.
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