Concerning the Spiritual in Indie Rock

In his 1911 essay “Concerning the Spiritual in Art,” Wassily Kandinsky noted that music had become an art devoted to expressing the soul of the artist, rather than to reproducing natural phenomena.

He argued that examining inconsequential details of the material world was not as important as pushing the boundaries of consciousness and broadening the human experience. For Kandinsky, literature, music, and art were the first and most sensitive arenas of this spiritual revolution, as people turned away from the monotony of the present and instead focused on those ideas and concepts that allowed the soul to explore its non-material aspirations.

By “spiritual,” Kandinsky meant both the universal and the emotional – tapping into the enormity of the cosmos and the profundity of the human spirit.

The bar that Kandinsky has set is incredibly high. But what insights can be gained when examining Animal Collective’s newest single?

Neutral Milk Hotel’s 1998 In the Aeroplane Over the Sea is a beloved predecessor to the metaphysical leanings of current indie rock. This album blends together Middle Eastern and South Asian devotional music as well as Christian prayer, sometimes even within the same song, to create the haunting dream-story of the singer’s intense and all-encompassing fascination with Anne Frank.

This seemingly disastrous concept yields an enigmatic, contemplative, and deeply moving album.

All the history of centuries is brought together in a dream-like blend of visuals. Without ever mentioning the name of Frank, Neutral Milk Hotel’s singer and songwriter, Jeff Mangum, shares with us his worries about growing up and growing old, romanticism and sexuality, life, death and new life. Mangum’s protagonist is shown buried alive just before her rescuers show up and then reincarnated as a young boy in Spain playing pianos burning with fire.

He romanticizes childhood and its chaste, innocent relationships. His feelings towards adult sexuality, with its implications of mortality, is both attractive and intimidating; the album is saturated with physical liquids and decaying flesh.

The lyrics of Mangum could stand alone as poetry, but it is the accompanying music that sends the songs to the heavens. His folk guitar playing emphasizes his passion and the traditional instruments–such as banjo, singing saw, and flugelhorn–are caught up in the mix of symphonic sounds.

The addition of tapes, radios, and filters gives another dimension to the music, as the layers of sound swell and then slowly fade away. Mangum’s voice is the most powerful instrument of all, conveying the emotions of a lover, a child, and a mystic. He can be frantic and wild, as if a holy fool, and his singing of a lost love’s funeral dirge is especially poignant. On “King of Carrot Flowers Pts. Two & Three,” he reaches a higher register and chants, “I love you, Jesus Christ” in a nasal tone reminiscent of a Muslim call to prayer.

The enigmatic and fragile Mangum left Neutral Milk Hotel before they could become trendsetters, but Animal Collective have since filled this void. For nearly a decade they have been trying to bridge the gap between the physical and the spiritual world. An example of their work is the captivating single, “My Girls,” found on the album Merriweather Post Pavilion. The different harmonies in the song mix, divide, and vanish, only to come back altered at some point in the song.

Many bands are attempting to reach beyond the usual catchy melody. Animal Collective is just one of them. At their utmost potential, these musicians create grand, ever-changing sounds that paint the world with vivid Kandinsky hues. Melodies accumulate, refrains reach a fever pitch with extraordinary vigor, and, if fortune is on our side, we can experience a disruption of time and space.

In Animal Collective’s “My Girls,” the repetition of vocals has become the focus of the song, rather than the words themselves.

Repetition is commonplace in popular music, yet what these musicians are doing takes influence from Zen meditation rather than Top 40. Drone, a technique used in Southwestern Asian music where a single sound is sustained throughout the piece, is apparent in the album.

Although this technique has been used in Western experimental music for many years, it is a relatively new addition to indie rock. Angel Deradoorian, a Dirty Projectors bassist and vocalist, used drone on her recent solo EP Mind Raft and has expressed interest in its ability to provide subtle variations on a set theme.

Music may have a way of touching our souls by bringing back the sounds and structure of spiritual songs, thus reviving our collective memory of how worship and faith feel. Arcade Fire’s Neon Bible (2007) was largely recorded in a transformed church and features the low rumble of organs.

Ezra Buchla from Gowns believes their fragile harmonies have a similar result to religious music. (“If people have souls, that’s how to wake them,” he says.) The band’s 2007 album Red State, with its layers of drone, amplifier static, and vocalizations that vary from soft and dismal to frenzied and screaming, doesn’t sound like it belongs in a church choir.

However, the clash between these elements generates its own type of call-and-response pattern; the feedback becomes a voracious choir, always threatening to consume the solo performer.

Many bands in the 21st century focus on music that stimulates the mind, while others prefer a style of physical ecstasy. Ponytail’s 2008 album, Ice Cream Spiritual, is indicative of their upbeat, ecstatic noise-punk.

Lead singer Molly Siegel’s shrill vocals, combined with her bandmates’ experimental take on the classic guitar-bass-drum combo, bring to mind the feeling of playing as a child. Siegel believes that childhood and spirituality are linked by breaking down the barriers between ourselves and the universe, leading to a kind of pleasure that comes from losing yourself.

The Mae Shi, an L.A. spazz-core group, often reach a fever pitch of ecstatic joy, complete with handclaps and screaming. Dan Deacon, from Baltimore, takes the sounds of childhood (video games, cartoons) and turns them into invigorating electronic music that has been called “future shock”.

Deacon kicks off his concerts by having everyone join hands and recite a nonsensical chant of “Ethan Hawke, Ethan Hawke” in order to make a temporary bond between strangers. He prefers to place his equipment in the center of the crowd to get rid of the usual artist-audience dynamic. His performances create a church-like atmosphere of high energy and collective enthusiasm, like one would witness on Easter Sunday; both the musician and the audience act like hyperactive kids. Everyone in attendance blends together as one, enveloped in sweat and speaking in a foreign language.

Animal Collective and other similar bands make a smooth transition from one song to another, making it so there are rarely any silences. As a result, the audience does not have to wait for a polite time to clap, instead they find themselves applauding as the music reaches its peak. This enthusiastic response only enhances the power of the moment, instead of diminishing it.

The devotional lyrics on In the Aeroplane Over the Sea may not be able to redeem a spiritually lifeless track, but they can certainly focus our imagination. Gowns’ Red State is set in the harsh, wintery Dakota region, and its visual strength is derived from what Erika Anderson and Buchla describe as “visions”.

These are like dreams that come around again and again, images of a soldier’s empty basement bedroom, with the American flag in the window, and recollections of characters and places from Anderson’s rural childhood. Instead of taking us to a state of beatitude, Red State immerses us in its desolate atmosphere.

We can relate to the spiritual emptiness that comes from living in the middle of nowhere and not having anyone to talk to but God; we can feel that emptiness in Anderson’s and Buchla’s voices and in the ten-foot-high snowdrifts of static.

The words of Gowns possess Christian symbolism, toggling between a physical hell — dogs in bondage and juvenile criminals using gasoline to get high — and clouds of heaven. On “Fargo,” Anderson mentions the drugs her narrator has ingested and then breaks into an echoey proclamation of the sublime: Sunlight pierces the window, and the future stretches out into the beyond.

Flickers of light from the sky grant these characters a sliver of optimism. A redeemer descends from the mountain. Anderson sings, “I have spotted the sound of angels / I heard their wings as they flew / He said I was condemned / But you know I am everything.”

Several musicians, such as Sufjan Stevens and the Daniel Smith of Danielson (who at times performs costumed as a tree with the nine fruits of the Holy Spirit), are outspokenly Christian and often include their faith in their songs and titles. However, Anderson, who was formerly Catholic, and Buchla, who has never believed in a higher power, have more complicated views on religion.

Deradoorian, the bassist and vocalist of the Dirty Projectors, has had an ongoing interest in religion since junior high, when in a parking lot with a youth group she was “born again”. A few years after that, she rejected fundamentalist Christianity and started practicing a form of meditation that was not attached to any specific denomination. The members of the Mae Shi have various outlooks on religion; while some never accepted the existence of a God, others are passionate followers of it.

In the album HLLLYH (pronounced “hell yeah,” or “hallelujah”), biblical scenes are blended with the theme of the movie Dawn of the Dead, but the conflicting opinions of the songwriters make the tracks alternate between fiery condemnation and profound uncertainty.

Many musical groups think twice about embracing secular spirituality. Yeasayer’s first album, All Hour Cymbals, includes a variety of influences from around the world that span both religious and non-religious music.

The mix of Middle Eastern psychedelia, Bollywood soundtracks, and African chants creates a mesmerizing blend that isn’t quite like any of its sources. Critics have labeled their sound as “cosmic” and “tribal,” but the band members are openly skeptical of how mysticism can be used to manipulate and numb. Chris Keating, vocalist and keyboardist, sees All Hour Cymbals as a secular attempt to understand the feelings of devotion and admiration that some find in church.

The album is meant to evoke these emotions through art.

In the present times, mainstream religion appears to be far removed from metaphysics. The concepts of good and evil have been abused in a number of holy wars and Christian pastors invest little energy in debating the essence of the human spirit. For those of us who are unwilling to engage in these jihads, we have to look for alternative wonders to ponder. Keating perceived that art may provide an answer to the vacancy left by organized religion: Indie rock’s listeners, who are mostly young, urban, and not religious, bow in reverence at the foot of a stage. Bible readings have been replaced by engaging in the ritual of listening and relistening to albums to ascertain their significance or simply experience the delight of their favorite albums.

Kandinsky advised artists to step away from the earth’s harsher aspects, and look instead to the “nonmaterial” plane. Nevertheless, many musicians have embraced spirituality and made it a part of their physical existence.

As an example, Animal Collective’s “My Girls” is about protecting the singer’s wife and daughter, and the words he sings are so honest it is almost uncomfortable. Gowns, on the other hand, use religious symbols to address politics and social issues; Anderson went as far as asserting that their album Red State is a protest record, criticizing rural destitution, addiction, and the like. South Dakota’s proposed abortion ban is also mentioned.

The blaring horn section, singing saw solos, and Mangum’s yowls draw us in to In the Aeroplane Over the Sea from the very first listen, yet it is the mournful longing at the album’s core that keeps us up at night ruminating on the lyrics.

For indie rock’s spiritual explorers, the spiritual and the earthly are not opposed, but rather inextricably linked, and this music derives from the space where those two realms intersect. Anne Frank and the tragedies she endured are made to reverberate through this album.

The prevalence of plagiarism has become increasingly noticeable in recent times. It is a serious issue that must be addressed, as it can lead to detrimental consequences. Copying or imitation of another person’s ideas and words without giving due credit is what constitutes plagiarism and is considered a form of academic dishonesty.

To avoid plagiarizing, one must give credit to any sources of information used, and make sure to rewrite any borrowed material in their own words.

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