Songbook: ‘Breadcrumb Trail’

I try not to post unless I’ve got something pressing or moderately worthwhile to say. If an idea feels false or ill-conceived or insignificant (ha!), I delete it. (Unless I’m in finals, that is. Then I will post my grocery list to avoid doing work.) I have three or four really long posts in the works right now (ten single-spaced pages on Eastern Promises growing less relevant daily), but I’m trying to get in the habit of writing shorter, stronger pieces, even if they lack research that would make them more valuable. I came up with this Songbook feature, where instead of discussing albums or artists at length, I’ll focus on a single track. The first installment covers the opening track on Slint’s 1991 Spiderland, ‘Breadcrumb Trail.’

In his New Yorker profile, Christopher Hitchens leans against his porch and savors aloud Philip Larkin’s account of Bob Dylan: ‘a cawing, derisive voice.’ A phrase I like to roll around in my mouth while listening to Spiderland is ‘epic portent.’ It’s a very ugly thing to say and a hyperbolic description of the music; there are pieces whose breadth and misgiving make ‘Breadcrumb Trail’ sound like a Urinals number. Still, it’s more revealing about the music, being a non-musician, than an analysis of chord progressions and time signatures.

Famously enough, Brian Wilson wanted Smile to be a ‘teenage symphony to God.’ I might be reading too much into the proclamations of an acid head, but I think Wilson’s interest lies in the disparity between a teenager’s desire and a teenager’s ability. Wilson’s adolescents are capricious, histrionic, vulnerable, lovesick; their unguarded emotional reverie is not yet defeated by the realities of adulthood, nor the imperative to grandeur that seizes some mature artists. Schumann wrote his third symphony in honor of the Rhine. Beethoven planned to dedicate his to Napoleon. We know what an adult symphony to God sounds like– Mahler’s Eighth is the most bombastic example– but how would a beach boy express himself in a symphony, and to what end?

Smile was Wilson’s attempt to answer this question. Lacking the means but not the emotion, the teen writes a symphony to God, the most grandiose form of music to the most grand dios (if you will). The result is necessarily endearing. If we recognize the intent, the deficiencies make the product all the more precious: like a child offering his mother a handwrought sculpture.

Slint play ‘epic portent’ the way Brian Wilson’s teenager plays his symphony. Adolescent epic portent: that’s my thesis. Four depressed, suburban Kentucky, outcast rock dudes blasting foreboding vistas of noise like they were Allan fucking Pettersson, all between drinking brews, fighting with their girlfriends and swimming in a rock quarry. (Did you know that Will Oldham took that picture?) Members of the band were reportedly institutionalized during the recording of the album. It sounds obvious.

‘Breadcrumb Trail’ overreaches (in a good way) more than any other track on Spiderland. ‘Good Morning, Captain’ outdoes it for sheer angst, but Slint’s palette has more than one shade of red. The setting is cryptic-carnival, worthy of post-crooning-era Tom Waits. We hear of, ‘a soiled man, a bucket of torn tickets at his side [who] watches as the children run by and picks his teeth.’ The young protagonist persuades a fortuneteller to take a ride on the roller coaster. At the height of the ride, they share a sublime instant of abandon. They come down, literally and figuratively, and she throws up. They part on a tender look in the parking lot.

They climax of the story, the image of two free, screaming spirits, is also the key musical moment. I know I exaggerate a lot– at last count there were 23 best bands ever–but few things hit me as viscerally as the minute and a half mark of ‘Breadcrumb Trail.’ After the steady, metallic lilt of the introduction, it’s a blinding insurgence of noise.

Creeping up into the sky.
Stopping, at the top and,
starting down. The girl grabbed my hand,
I clutched it
tight.
I said good-bye to the ground.
I shouted, and searched, the sky for a friend.
I heard the fortune teller,
screaming
back at me.
We stuck out our hands, and met the winds.

That block of text is worthless if you can’t hear the song. Even if you get a chance to listen to it, I’m at a loss to describe how they create that sound. I saw them play three years ago in New York when they toured briefly, and even with a clear view of the stage from the balcony of Irving Plaza, I could not see the connection between the unmeasured roar filling the hall and the trifle of instruments the band members were hunched over, plucking attentively.

Musicianship is not my domain, though. I’m more comfortable among the wide-, wet-eyed generations of sad young men that cherish Spiderland like it was a holy text. It’s not a record for everyone. Even for the converted, it’s an exhausting listen. But like its more mannered, ceremonial cousin, Joy Division’s Closer, there will always be moments when nothing else will do. When I want ‘epic portent’ without etiquette, Spiderland is unequaled.

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~ by ohkrapp on January 15, 2008.

2 Responses to “Songbook: ‘Breadcrumb Trail’”

  1. will someone please invent a device that shocks my testicles when i write anything in the next 48 hours not homework-related? thx.

  2. I had never heard of Slint before, it’s from an era of early nineties rock I’m not too familiar with. For no good reason I’m reminded of someone you have yet to blog about but should really consider for an upcoming entry, the “tower of power, too sweet to be sour” Randy “Macho Man” Savage. One of his early incarnations in the field of Wrestling was “The Spider Friend”, a Spiderman like character that might have fit nicely and added a bit of bliss into the bleak landscape of these depressed young rockers album “Spiderland”. It’s a sticky supposition but these dudes just sound like they need a friend.

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