How to put this without hyperbole? Knock Knock Get Up, the new release by the David Wax Museum, is one of the “most whole and complete” albums that I have heard in a long, long time. In fact, this maybe the best record I have heard since Bob Dylan released Blood on the Tracks in 1975.
I was actually a little nervous about this album because I really liked their last one, Everything is Saved, and sometimes when you like a particular record a lot, the next one can be a real let-down. (Oh, how many times has Bob Dylan done exactly that to me?) I was also a little nervous because the first video I saw from the album was “Will You Be Sleeping?” was quite different (maybe more complex) then the super-catchy songs like “Born with a Broken Heart,” and “Yes, Maria, Yes” and “Chuchube.” So, I didn’t actually buy the album until a week ago, but since then I have listened to it almost non-stop.
What do I mean by “whole and complete?” Put simply, I mean, there isn’t a song on the album that I don’t like. I mean, on Everything is Saved there are the trio of songs that I mentioned above that I absolutely love and there are some wonderful “sleepers” on there like the beautiful “Lavender Street.” There are others that are good, but that I don’t necessarily love. Translated: there are a few songs that I tend to skip somewhat regularly on that album. But on Knock Knock Get Up there aren’t any skip-worthy songs. Sure, I gravitated to “Harder Before It Gets Easier”, “Vivian” and “Leopard Girl”, but quite quickly, I just started looping through the album start to finish, start to finish, start to finish.
Mysticism of the Ordinary
I will also posit that all the songs on this album are cut, musically and lyrically, from the same cloth. By that I don’t mean that it is a concept album or single narrative carried out over multiple songs. Rather, and pardon me if I say this incorrectly, but I would say that this album is a sort of meditation on the everyday mystery and ordinary mysticism. It is a close reading of life not through merely an emotional lens or even a traditional “spiritual” lens. Everything is slightly askew. “Wondrous Love” is a beautiful love song yet mournful and sad. The pessimism of “Harder Before It Gets Easier” is a musically buoyant and one might say joyful. “Leopard Girl”, a song about yearning for authenticity in relationships and inherent distance between people, is yet hopeful in spite of a Greek Chorus of the skeptical “they”:
“They say don’t trust lovers who kiss kiss kiss with eyes open wide
Their words and the truth do everything but collide”
“They say don’t trust lovers infatuated with your divineness
Being in love is just one step removed from bli-bli-bli-blindness”
Yet it is a love song in the final analysis.
Every song on the album can be read as a reflection on ordinary life kissed by the extraordinary. But you don’t see it in life by staring, you see it through a sideways glance. You see it when your view is slightly askew. (Certainly the two video for “Will you be Sleeping?” reinforce that impression.)
So, somehow, I am calling this some sort of mysticism of the ordinary. Some of the lyrics certainly support this idea. For example, “All Sense of Time” has:
How beautiful when it rains
You can hear the nighttime sing
It’s eight and then it’s nine o’clock
But I’m still somewhere in between
May we lose all sense of time
May we be patient as a stone
All the time we’re given
Is given to us on loan
And from “Refuge”
I’ve heard talk of a city
That can’t be found on one’s own
Where the mercy is measureless
And the unknowable it is known
But let me be more honest here. I didn’t come to this sense of this album as a meditation on the mysteries of everyday live and the mysticism of the ordinary through studying the lyrics. It was through listening to the songs. Let me try to describe the experience of coming to this conclusion.
I was drawn to “Harder Before It Gets Easier” for the same reason that I was drawn to “Born with a Broken Heart” on Everything is Saved: it is song that is about an underlying sadness we experience, but through tune and the tone the experience is upbeat and even joyful. It is like someone saying “Yeah, I was born with a broken heart, life is hard, but regardless, life is still amazing no-matter-what.” Hence the line in “Born with a Broken Heart, “Why do you look so sad?” In her phrasing Suz seems to be imploring, “Yeah, I understand, I know what you mean, and you are right, but you don’t really have to be sad.” The song “Harder Before It Gets Easier” lyrically has an even more pessimistic message about life. For example,
Yes, most doors open briefly and then they are shut
The circle of life is a wheel that gets stuck in a rut
As pessimistic as some of the lyrics are the “feeling” of the song is the same as “Born with a Broken Heart.” It is an acknowledgment that life is hard — “You’ve been wrung out and then doused with grief” — and you know it’s not really going to get easier if you are realistic, never-the-less, we are meant to live loudly, even buoyantly. But it is not all sunshine and lollipops, it isn’t rose-colored glasses. The point isn’t to be happy in spite of how hard life is; the point is to live vibrantly through whatever comes our way.
Knock, knock, fate was at the door
Knock, knock, too loud to ignore
Knock, knock, we were unprepared
Knock, knock, fate it does not care
So the music and the lyrics, I would argue, paint this kind of experience. But it really dawned on me when I heard Suz’s background vocal behind these lyrics:
And the difference between wrong and right will close like a fist
But for now judgments passed on us will be swift
It was striking. Suz’s voice is so clear, soaring and beautiful here. It may be a cliché to call it angelic, but it is “other-worldly.” Some may call it haunting. I would call her singing here as an “echo of the eternal” in the sense that they used in an earlier verse “In the ocean of time this moment will be brief.”
This is when I started seeing and framing the whole album as a meditation on mysticism of ordinary experience and life.
I have to admit that I skipped “A Dog in This Fight” during my first run through the album. It seemed slow-paced and repetitive and, I guess, not the type of thing that I was looking for in the David Wax Museum. But oh how I was wrong!
But I’ve come to see it as an anchor and the enduring heartbeat of the album. It starts with a simple, in some ways, indelicate “strum-beat” of the guitar, followed by David’s slowly paced singing of short, maybe staccato, lyrics (I imagine this took discipline on David’s part because of his obvious love as a quick-turned phrase.) And it dawned on me. The music was, indeed, a heartbeat. The lyrics themselves were also “elemental”:
Let it rain down
Let it hit me with a thousand jolts
Let it trample me
With wild, thrashing colts
One can see this song as the counterpart to “Harder Before It Gets Easier.” “Harder…” focuses on fate and the world; “A Dog…” is about human determination in the face of a world that will always be harder before it gets easier. While its fierceness maybe hyperbole (yeah right, a thousand jolts!), but it is not bravado. Consider:
I want a dog
In this fight
I don’t care
If I get out all right
This fight is this life. And we all know that regardless of the dog in the fight, none of us gets out of here alive. So, it isn’t bravado, rather it is a determined stance to live a meaningful life, to be something “goddamn true” against the hardness and harshness of the world and our fateful fleetingness within this world.
Musically, it is interesting how the spare beat of the guitar is supplemented, in the middle of the song, by the haunting, ethereal cooing, and swirling instrumentation. I took it as a reminder that determined stance, the fierce individual heatbeat, is only part of the story. The guitar “strumbeat” returns, but is now accompanied with rich and varied instrumental flourishes. The call to live a determined life is not a call to a modern-day puritanism, or existential despair, or self-pity or anger. It is a call to live your life as if it matters.
Finally, we come to “Refuge.” I don’t know how to classify this song musically, but in my heart it sounds like a gospel song regardless of the actual genre. The lyrics certainly support this idea:
Do you come seeking refuge?
Do you come with a humble heart?
Do you believe
Somewhere you’ll find more light than dark?
But it also has an anthem-like feel to it. Like you should be listening and dancing to it as the band parades through the back streets of a dusty Mexican city. Swaying your hips, shuffling your feet and lifting your hands over your hand.
And here we come full circle. The album starts with the sweet, domestic “Will You Be Sleeping?” and ends with a full-throated, gospel-like anthem to see our lives as kissed by the extraordinary, and a call to live life vibrantly regardless of our fears and doubts.
(Notice how the final verse is sung underneath Suz singing the first verse again. It is a subtle and interesting technique — hiding away the mysticism in “broad daylight.”)
Thanks to the band for making such a great album. I can’t wait to see them live, in-concert again!