. artist : elliott .
. album : false cathedrals .
. year : 2000 .
. label : revelation .
. grade : b .
There’s scaffolding for construction and scaffolding for decay and they’re the same. Construction and deconstruction are latent in any structure, and to see what something is most clearly is to see how it was made and how it will be unmade. Elliott’s False Cathedrals has a singular cathedral, a shade of its incomplete self, ghastly with the sublimity of transience, the ambiguity, the etheric jostling and reverberation, the liminal energy and pathos of a Turner. (Is it possible that all constructions built by anyone but ourself is transgressive?) Who knows at what stage of development this was abandoned, whether transepts built first and left off or merely left standing. The perspectival angle gazes up from below, toward the northwest as a flight of birds fly, northeast. It’s the transepts, oriented north and south, that ‘are the “weight-bearing axis,” so to speak, on the traditional cathedral plan, and the hollow between the two halves of the transept is called the crossing, and the segments of the cathedral are called ‘ribs.’ In this deconstructed cathedral, what else but this is exposed to the elements, to the air, to our gaze? A fibrous shroud, connective tissue, a ghost’s sheet are remnants in the crossing, the heart. But it’s the birds (flying above) that are important: note that there’s a single bird between “Elliott” and “False Cathedrals.” What does the bird signify? And what accounts for this wayward, riveting angle? The birds are above the cathedral, entirely liberated and able to be discerning. It’s only the angle that makes it seem as though the birds are lifting off from …; but no: they’re flying over. And in its kindred way, False Cathedrals develop their generation’s concern with sovereignty, with direction, and with perspicuity, tying it to an instance, and shifting the gaze to grace set it free.
The new millennium’s False Cathedrals is the culmination of the 90’s. It’s impossible not to recognize this sonic — and moral, too — residue. False Cathedrals is too ‘steeped in’ to be a complete resuscitation … but it does begin this process, and organically, from within; it sees the birds and it aspires to their heights, and without its being rooted, such sentiment couldn’t be transformative. For all that’s happened before and after 2000 in ‘emotional’ music, be challenged by this album; it’s not an opus, but there’s uncommon clarity of mind and form in False Cathedrals, a purity that awkwardly, paradoxically redeems itself, at least partway, and that regales, quite cheerfully, its own grace. Elliott capture something emotive and sensible, spiritual and phenomenal, both inevitably deep-set and licitly couched — what isn’t reactionary? — and yet from which both sorts of liberation — what it is to fly above — become possible. It’s quite reversed the propensity to wallow, which, it should be stated, was not a necessary character of ‘emotional hardcore’ in its purest form, but which, of course, has characterized and continues to characterize an array of genres and products (…most). But it is especially notable that Elliott, by 2000, can no longer claim to be ‘emotional hardcore’ in that original inveterate, sensitive, hellion-inducing sense, but belong to the much bemoaned -astard child, ‘emo’ — and here is a complete reversal of that genre’s cardinal mode of thought and it’s feckless issue. False Cathedrals is a mighty and actionable album, and its stake is to discerningly articulate the qualitative cost of emotionally implicated cultural anxieties like it knows the solution. It has done, and proposes, work; there’s a deep, devout vigor here tasked with immense reframings, concerned with concerns culturally shriven as ‘too’ ‘spiritual’, like clemency, enrichment, and dependence. But Elliott speak to this from a communal place, from and for a generational culture, and urge the capacious airing of the connection between sentiment and circumstance, and the conversion of this particularly problematic wall between consciousness and conscience, for our very own “we.”
The sound achieved by Tobias Miller’s clean production is ablaze and emblazoned; entirely resolved, honed and acuate. The levels are excellent, with each contribution in full possession of itself and present. The prominence of the bass and vocal tracks are especially notable. False Cathedrals can be easy to dismiss as ‘emo’ because of Chris Higdon’s febrile delivery, but remember that dreams are often clearest when we sweat things out, when we’re half-conscious, and when there’s a fire behind them. And Higdon’s prodigious vocal leaps are often patterned, so that they appear frightening and untoward, but make the listener trust them. Drummer and pianist Kevin Ratterman is in fine form, even incorporating electronic samples and percussion elements — his kit work is whetted, and nontraditional items are incorporated seamlessly, of course. Elliott was Higdon (g, vox), Jonathan Mobley (b-g), Jay Palumbo (e-g), and Ratterman (d, p).
There’s a succinctness and purity to each piece of False Cathedrals, and production is no exception. Lyrically, these are all postcards, sometimes clumsy but always intimate, and, in the same way, Elliott have thought about what it matters they try to say in the most rarefied manner possible. Nothing else shows where their heart is — this is a conscious effort to convey to the other, to their peers — it’s in the connective act for Elliott. This connection does abide in the little impermanences that we think of ‘emo’ as comprising — exacting, foolish, consuming sparks — but remember that, then, they feel like relationships; it restores the humanity in those momentary but complete unions … that these could be relationships of five minutes or fifty years, of one offhand glance or of utter commitment. It’s not clear if they’re ‘actual’ or ‘tangible’; instead, the spiritual and universal component is emphasized. And here’s your postcard.
There’s a complete consonance between surveying the album and beginning to listen. “Voices” — indeed — it’s like the shuffling of cards, like the weeding of gardens, like the sound ships — excuse me; cars — make when they pass. It’s everyday window wipers and so many wings, gentle piano and choir except it doesn’t feel hackneyed. Elliott can’t help but reclaim a sort of purity of things by their unleavened relationship with it — it’s not naïve but grounded; it’s the sort of purity you regain, you come back to, you survey and rebuild and ballast upon.
Their concern for our cultural processes is evident in the flagship song, “Calm Americans,” a song about sedate calmness and seditious calmness both, and on scales. They say “Americanized” with a little ‘a,’ and, because of the song’s meter and the way it seeks to treat the word — like a processual noun — it doesn’t feel like the word we recognize as claimable. “Calm Americans” could have been tremendously maladroit as a commentary, but it’s not; instead, I’m sure it rings clear through anyone of my generation. It’s concerned en masse, too: populist and entirely ecumenical, its foundation is inclusivity; existence is predicated on being a ‘we.’
The structure of “Calm Americans” is extremely sophisticated: Higdon’s pitching and phrasing (and the elegant bass and piano tapestry, too) absorb the listener and prevent them from having to negotiate rules or step over non-existent cracks. Further, “Americans” feels as though it’s constantly blooming out into a superstructural realization, progressive phusis and culmination. It starts with a breath and the sounded decision to make a conversational gesture, then leaps to the most lucid, encapsulatory headline: “Bound to own all of our dreams / Intimate love affairs with common man themes.” The conversation — this is participatory — continues, “You stand where you fall / You climb when you cave / Your looks spent the life / Your body would pay / You’re a minute thin when the time is always right / You’ve already americanized your thoughts.” From there, the song constructs two pre-choruses, back-to-back, that use the same expansive convention to wreathe them: injecting vocal grit into the middle of the fourth line as if by impulse of feeling, and crowning with the fifth and sixth, in higher range belting out. The first pre-chorus is eloquent (“You lead your life pretending that you’re not found dead yet”), but it’s the second lays it full out (“You entertain, take a taste and run away with / It’s all been Americanized, that’s all / You symbolize / The message that we’re all okay with / We all fall in bed with / We’ve all lost our sense of touch”) by couching cultural complicity as mask adoption, capitulation, and reckless self-dispossession (there are levels of consent, surely, just as there are levels of “touch”).
The chorus revisits the pattern of the pre-chorus’ couplets, but expands them to reminisce on personal cost (“Bound to own all of our dreams”) but detail, accuse and confront the cultural cost (“You come for suicides and breaknecks”). In the bombastic break, a taut, vast snare echoes like a flashback, and an antiphonal section claims the issue gently on the other side: “’It’s alright,’ I convince myself / It’s over, let’s get it right / We calm ourselves with sex and games / It’s over, let’s get it right / We calm ourselves with locks and keys / It’s over, let’s get it right / We calm ourselves with store-bought dreams / It’s over, let’s get it right.” The newly calm American has a rapprochement in this derivative peace, reprising the first line with new meaning: “Bound to own all of our dreams.“
False Cathedrals does not keep climbing; instead, each song visits a debasement and resuscitates it. Often this is cultural (“We buy our lives and learn to spend it with swift and held hands / We’re the answer that came before the goal / We’re no answer at all“ and “This painted town is blinding me”), but, then, Elliott is careful to reclaim cultural tropes (“You’ll walk the Miracle Mile with me” and “We are the red cross white flag”), transmuting them and reclaiming their power through sincerity. Other times, the failing is intimate (“We claw and mark like animals”) but resolved with a pure (truly) self-justified consummation (“From all the times we ever tried / We should’ve found each other in this”).
Also evident is the move from signifier to signified; in one song, lipstick is used to connote what it would convey. And certainly, in fatal relationships, things become caricatured in their ridiculous fragility borne out by the wanna-be unknowing but totally cognizant way we hearken to them. Here, Higdon sings that [her] lipstick is “The sign that keeps / Reminding me.” From our pervasive skepticism (“And I move too close, when heat embodies me / And I stop to call beating hearts I ring / And I assume too much like breathing when I sleep”), Elliott rescues the phenomenal nature of human perception, and encourages more than casual applications, touting a Watts-esque nondeterministic faith: “Trust the moving colors / Trust the random actions.” And “Carving Oswego” retracts its dwelling on physical absence (“So this is how it is without your love”), instead concluding with, indeed, “trust” for the immanent and imminent (“So you’ve traced my number / So you’ve gathered it all up / So you’re catching up to me / Tracing on the line that made me free”). Elliott use “so” to express what’s evidently granted; therefore, they can couch the change of heart in the very same terms as the initial grievance.
The slackening of time (“This time it’s not your timing”) in False Cathedrals is also striking, with a clinging song’s epiphany admitting, “And I see the right direction / Got miles to go with / Miles to go with miles around / And I see the time is right for / The time is yours / The time is now.” The ambiguity is total — we can’t know if the narrator left or stayed — but the terms of its decision are radically and positively altered. Similarly, “Dying Midwestern” presents a specific scenario but flies overhead to ask the engulfing questions (“But are we okay?” and “Do you believe what you are?”) it deems as more relevant than logistics. Self- and relational-aggrandizement, too (“Born to serve / Born seductive“ and “I’m a dreamer and you’re a taker / Sin for the soul and savor the labor”), is denied and transformed into communal stewardship (“We are the bruised and the tender”). Elliott plainly pinpoint the crass, commanding proprioception in polluted relationships (“Turn around / Turn to me,” “Lie close,” and “You’re tired so let’s turn the lights out”), yet the crowning line of “Lie Close” rescues itself from the confusion (“Why are the kids and the cowards all in line?”)
The dangers of logistical religiosity without perspicuity and with subscription (“In reverence we search to find these compact people with sloped designs” and “You’re the stigmata that I starve for / And I pray the lord I keep”) are identified. False Cathedrals knows what falseness is because, as a mature human with a discerning gaze, it’s experienced truth; it understands what can’t be forced, as, from an epiphany in its broken framework, “Dying Midwestern” acknowledges, “Control’s not enough.” Last-word “Speed of Film” concludes, in spiritual forfeit — and thus, salvation — “It’s escaping me to keep it in / Let it all fall simple.”
by Brittany Tracy