I should be at a concert right now. The Mountain Goats are playing The National. I bought a ticket as I’ve been wanting to see this band since the first time I heard “No Children.” But not tonight. No, tonight I opted to stay in and write, much like I have been doing for just about every night recently.
I recently received a record – a chunk of my past pressed in translucent blue vinyl. It was a fun little nothing of a story. I picked it up on Ebay, as Richard is selling off old memorabilia to support a new Margot record. And since I seldom use Ebay, the shipping address was an old office that’s since been turned into a hotel. Thankfully the front of house staff was kind enough to hold my record for me, as it cost a small fortune. Visiting the new hotel was a nice little reminder that the past doesn’t exist anymore and the closest I’ve come to a pulp encounter in a while. Honestly, who picks up a package from a hotel in 2016?
This isn’t about how I got the record, though. This is about why I got the record.
This record, “The Dust of Retreat” by Margot and the Nuclear So and Sos is a bit of a rare bird. Rare both mathematically (only 1000 copies were pressed, only 100 in the translucent blue, and this one is signed) and narratively – as this album came out in 2006, but the record wasn’t pressed until 2012. That means everyone who purchased it has a story and needed a totem.
There are no era-specific vinyl copies of “The Dust of Retreat.” The odds of someone buying this record before she fell in love with it are near zero. This album is designed to be a totem, a metaphor rendered years after the fact, and only sought after by those us willing to make the effort. Only gained by those who needed the totem.
The concept of totemization is a funny thing – taking memories and making them manifest in such as a way as to say “This is something that I want people to know about me. When you look at this thing, I want you to know that it represents part – perhaps all – of me.”
Certain people do that digitally, creating the constant and cultivated digital trail, but totems take things a step further, don’t they? Not simply because of the physical part – that’s merely an indication of significance. That’s the end result.
No, what matters is the catalyst – the “why” of the totem. That “why” often represents two of the concepts that seem to dog me, that seem to drive me: History and Change. Yes, I know, the two seem intrinsic – History can easily be argued as the story of Change – but there is a difference.
It’s probably best to start with Change. I’m sure you’ve heard me go on and on about how Change is the natural order of things. While life is inherently meaningless – only gaining the meaning that we imbue it with – Change is dependable. Predictable. Change follows rules. Change always has a cause and an effect. This idea of ordered events, an unending string of causes and effects, grants a sense of inevitability to the Universe. We aren’t part of a plan so much as a piece of a formula. Change doesn’t care for the illusion of choice. Change only cares about the catalyst and the rule set.
Taken in those terms, “The Dust of Retreat” is a peculiar record. Richard Edwards has said that this is his least favorite Margot record. He’s called it “uneven.” Said he wished he could have done more with it. And that’s an understandable feeling. It was his first record as Margot, a big step up from Archer Avenue. And there are few tracks that feel ill-fitting – “Paper Kitten Nightmares” and “Barfight Revolution, Power Violence” stand out.
But what I think Richard might regret, and what I think actually draws people to this record, is that it stands as testament to heartbreak. The thirteen tracks run the gamut of dealing with, and recovering from, relationships. That is, this is a record of the pain of Change.
“On a Freezing Chicago Street” dives deep into what happens when nostalgia seeps in, falsely replacing the memories of actual pain with the idea that times maybe weren’t that bad. “Skeleton Key,” “Quiet as a Mouse,” and “Vampires in Blue Dresses” all seem to deal with using someone and unrequited love, albeit from three different angles and with varying levels of regret. “A Light On a Hill” is a solid stab at the regret for a relationship that never really got to run it’s course.
And don’t even get me started on unpacking the layers of “Talking in Code.”
The album, though, gets its title from a line the opening track “A Sea Chanty of Sorts.” This dark tale starts with hollow tones drifting in the background before the acoustic guitar and strings fade in. And then there’s the piano. They’re all there as support, for one lover talking to another. He’s urging her to live the best life she can.
And he’s convincing himself that he can watch her go. That he can breath through the dust as they both retreat from each other.
But despite his push, she didn’t do what the narrator needed. He wanted her to leave her drunk, abusive husband. Because when he kissed her, “it didn’t feel poisonous.” And when she cried, all he did was dry off her tears. Her wanted her to be with him. But he misjudged the effect of his cause.
The ultimate stinger, though, is the almost circle. She once told him, “We gotta live the best we know how.” Change the pronouns, and that’s exactly what he said when pushing her, “You gotta live the best you know how.” He opened the song with his words, closed it with hers. She changed him. He couldn’t effect the same change on her.
The narrator is, of course, hampered by his own History. Not that he has a choice in this – choice is a myth. Humans are every bit as governed by cause and effect as the universe we inhabit. No, what’s hampering the narrator is his selection of History.
The older we get, the more of history we have. We let lesser parts fade. I can’t recall what I had for lunch 37 Thursdays ago, I doubt you can either. But I can pick up various albums from my collection and tell you where I was when I bought them. What I was thinking. What they mean to me. That is to say, we select based on our past, the pieces that we carry forward.
Our causes form the selections of our past that ultimately come to define us.
Most of our past we forget about, for most things ultimately don’t matter.
But some of those pieces we turn into totems – items we want to display for others to see, for others to know us by. More we keep hidden inside, the secret guiding causes that render effects even if we don’t see them. But the things that form our History are selections – even if we didn’t choose them. All we need is the right Change to modify them, the alter the formula.
Unfortunately, and this seems to be the theme running through the album, we don’t get to pick the Changes in our lives. We can only use the causes we have, and try to live with the effects. We move on. Some turn into totems. Some scars. Choice doesn’t matter. We become our History. And that dictates our future. The best we can do is try to figure out the why.
Of course, the record would actually disagree with me on that last part. There’s a couplet buried within “Talking In Code” –
Cause if you’re touring your mind
You’ll get lost every time
So perhaps we’re not meant to know our own causes, or understand our own effects. Meanwhile, a decade after the album came out, and four years after the record was pressed, I’ve got something new to hang on my wall. That makes it something of my totem.