al karpenter does not write protest songs. what do you protest with a cultural hegemony presented so disparate we just cannibalise? no, al karpenter writes propaganda songs (manifesto on my window, and my fruit).
but who or what the fuck is al karpenter and does it even matter?
ideologically, thematically, it’s a loosely elusive concept. as an album it plays with place, person and time (but is very much of a time, person and place). as an album it’s a mess, a reigning confusion. old picasso said, every act of creation is first an act of destruction, but goddamn this feels more like the befuddled post-coital aftermath or a stumble through wreckage.
it’s on the brink, flirting with collapse, the sweatsoaked and breathless exhaustion of too much, the teetering delirium of endlessly coping with the unknown / unknowing.
which is very twenty twenty.
so it stumbles to life, a band tu(r)ning up, wandering into frame like a lost actor. they try and try again, staggering to feet, sputtering out, the guitar as brief huffing pneuma, a broken fingered hardcore, then nothing.
a faint dying heartbeat, adrift in a fug of electricity, rhyming dictionary mantras (spain, pain, gain, shame). there’s a snare that’s rain falling on a tin roof in the distance.
picture it as occam’s razor. what happens is this; it grows so tired of movement, so stops. what happens is this; the opposite of awakening.
well it’s 2020 and if they don’t let us dream, we won’t let them sleep
repeat as necessary till bored, burned, dead-eyed and staring? i wish i wish i wish that something would happen…
and it does, reeds and voice coalesce around beats. the comedian frozen on stage. gathering moss. here it is, the opposite of shark.
well it’s 1969 okay another year with nothing to do i say oh my and a boo hoo
that stooges echo, that ahistorical line spanning fifty years. rock, still the preserve of bored young men, but the translation into nihilism and destruction has been replaced now by a kind of charmless idiom.
this no-wave creaking asphalt jazz, all feedback and drum rumbles hitting a lumpen funk, feels like a sneer, thankfully. a xerox of a xerox of a xerox of a fifty year old record we need no more of.
let’s call it folk music then, where individualism and the collective collide. right now everything feels very self *and* very communal. loneliness next to godliness.
once we had a house and bread, dignity and a workplace, now we have no place and no face
and / or
power to the sick, power to the meek, power to the tears, power to be bent by the power, to the meek and the lower
in the wrong hands these words are a limp fuddled pete seegerish knit. in the right hands they’re synapses firing. here they’re buried, scorched, torn – the bruised chant of a protest we’ve all moved on from but some fuckers are still singing.
so if it is folk music let’s plot points from alan lomax to raoul vaneigem to this clatter and bleed.
or say it’s jazz, like a post-something jimmy giuffre side, smashed to pieces. jazz in the misphilosophised sense of freedom. it’s picking up and playing whether you can play or not (it’s all play goddammit!).
it’s not radical in the sense of outbursts of volume or violence (though there is some of that). as music it works best when built round a fitful ur- of wry sigh (those repeat ‘ai’ dipthongs again), a monotonous ostinato, and a desire for liberation.
a liberation, politically, musically, socially, that comes via disorientation and disassociation. it’s not the forward marching backward looking 4/4 of punk, but the nagging rattle of not knowing what comes next. a noise for breaking-down. a machine for disruption.
despite the personnel involved it’s not hard work, in fact it’s arguably uncomplex. a lot of it musically feels like happenstance, of marbles rolling down stairs, communication through foggy gestures, to the extent i’m not sure what the album’s called or which of the last two tracks are which as it loops round again but
it’s like the first butterfly to emerge from the cocoon as a caterpillar. there’s shape, unforming.
the battle hymn is the battle hymn of class struggle, of anti-imperialism, not that of a blustering america, sclerotic and holy, thrashing on a freshly shat bed. it’s the truth marching on and on and on, round and round and round…
sonically it’s the lou reed amp tapes, it’s metallic ko all through one channel. it’s a dream of refusing, not flinching, not struggling. it’s all that really comes close to the blown rockisms of that early single or autobiographik blues.
even in the last three minutes when it’s congealed into actual anatomy – hellraiser’s skinless frank cotton – it is not an exit. we won’t let em sleep, feels numb not enraged. the electronics are a weary delirium, one last jig in the face of the unevolving and unenlightening.
in the end it doesn’t feel like a manifesto. it is here, in this moment, part howl of despair, but also a plea, a confused clumsy fumble for understanding at the incomprehensibility of what to do when everything is fractured and all the pieces reflecting.