In Changing My Opinions Of My Changing Opinions VII: Volume I: From Preconceived Notions Came My Shoddy Judgment
I must admit, for most of my teen years I had a narrow musical mind and an intense hatred for anything that even mildly suggested ’emo’ to me. I remember so many of the band names rattled off to me on a daily basis: Dashboard Confessional, Further Seems Forever, Mae, Days Away – so on and so forth, etc, etc. They all seemed to reach for some far away meaning, some elusive happiness that every teary chord and lyric brought closer somehow. One sappy syllable after another, I cringed and wondered when and how rock had lost its backbone. My musical discussions with people always went the same way – poorly.
Step 1: Meet and greet new person.
Step 2: Exchange a list of interests.
Step 2a: Arrive at the topic of music.
Step 3: Listen to them mumble through their favorite bands (that I hated).
Step 4: Politely refer them to Ozzy (Oh how sophisticated I was).
Step 5: Pray for their lost soul as I lost interest.
(The term social pariah probably applied to me back then.)
Once in a while, though, the name Coheed and Cambria emanated from someone’s nondescript, repulsively lip-ringed mouth. Those words weren’t on the lengthy list of names that screamed hormonal misunderstanding and were riddled with Simpson’s quotes. It was new and suggested no feelings – my interest piqued. But the suggestion to try them out came from people whose taste I didn’t respect (No Ozzy, no dice).
After hearing ‘A Favor House Atlantic’ and ‘Devil In Jersey City’, I gave up. Too cutesey. Too concise, I thought. No one bothered to explain it to me. No one told me the story, the continuity behind the music. They probably didn’t know much beyond the fact that Coheed’s sound fit nicely in their chosen pop music niche. I forgot about them in seconds.
My opinions softened since then, and at the suggestion of a certain bass-slapping friend, I gave them a second chance. I’m glad I did, as this is a band whose work really can’t be taken at face value.
First – a brief lesson. Coheed and Cambria, since their second album (and to some degree the first), have composed their music around a story entitled ‘The Amory Wars’, conceptualized by lead singer Claudio Sanchez and depicted (at least partially) in a series of comics/graphic novels. Their arrangement on the albums is similar to a movie soundtrack, setting important aspects of the story to song.
The songs each tell a part of the surprisingly complex story, in comparison to most other popular music, where songs – though they deal with many different themes – do not feed into an overarching narrative. This interrelatedness and direction towards a defined end point provides each song a certain added cohesiveness, in a way that actually made me crave more of the story.
Sure, the concept album has been done many times before – Rush’s 2112 comes to mind, as do a number of Dream Theater albums – and Coheed may not be the best at what they do, but they’ve managed to bring a slice of progressive rock into the mainstream (though the prog label might be an improper fit). Prog rock isn’t always an easy sell – so it’s nice to see it, or at least something like it, getting attention.
My initial negative reaction to their music had a lot to do with the lyrics – with the high pitched singing, emotional hooks, indecipherable lines and phrases – I just couldn’t seem to follow any of it. Approaching the songs on a case by case basis was simply the wrong way to go – a heartening fact, because if their fans somehow got it, why couldn’t I?
After discovering the story and the nature of the albums, my prejudice against the lyrics evaporated. Following a narrative was much more engaging than trying to latch on to each individual song. Though much of the inspiration for the lyrical content undoubtedly comes from the author’s personal experience (like many works of fiction), the novel approach he took to songwriting cleared up the vanity that I usually associate with pop lyrics. To wrap it all inside a work of fiction may be vain as well – but frankly, I’ll take a good story based on someone’s feelings over a true outpouring of emotions any day. Good thing I’m not a therapist.
As each song unfolds, the central hero learns, experiences and changes, adding weight to the journey with every step (It’s downright folky, if you think about it). Even if every song means something different, those meanings build the character and explore the lore instead of remaining self contained. This unique structuring created a situation, at least for me, where going back and forth through the songs uncovered little things here and there I hadn’t noticed before. Usually this is something I associate with books, movies, or serialized shows like Battlestar Galactica – not music.
A great deal of music insists on listeners to identify with the lyrical content. Think about this: how often do we see Facebook statuses and away messages that consist of meaningful song quotes? I’ve seen it a lot – and used to be guilty of it too. I’m not suggesting there’s anything wrong with it, of course – just illustrating how often we look to music for guidance, or to say something we can’t adequately express ourselves. Most artists have a story to tell, but usually not one that spans more than a single song, much less several albums.
It’s akin to reading short stories versus reading novels. Both are valid forms of literature, but where the short story gets to the point quickly and packs every sentence full of meaning, novels are immersive, letting readers identify wherever and with whomever they wish, yet always convincing the reader to move on and finish out the journey.
I’d tell other artists to try Coheed’s model, but then I’d have to hate their imitators for the very same reason I thought I didn’t like Coheed in the beginning.
Oh, the irony.
P.S. Chaos Collage welcomes you back.