Brian Slattery just posted about Joanna Newsom’s rather transcendent album Ys, calling it The Best Fantasy Novel You’ve Ever Heard. But let’s say fantasy (or possibly harp-strumming and intricate lyricism) doesn’t fit your mood today. There are plenty of other SF subgenres being explored, musically speaking, and one of the best speculative concept albums I’ve encountered is essentially the inverse of Newsom’s layered, beautiful, delicate creation. On The Body, the Blood, the Machine, The Thermals construct an ugly dystopian United States ruled by a rapacious, hypocritical theocracy —and then make sharp, angry, immediate indie-punk music about it.
Science fiction has perhaps most often reached “mainstream legitimacy” in novels of this type: 1984, Brave New World, The Handmaid’s Tale—they take negative elements of the author’s society, exaggerate them, and extrapolate into the future to give warning to contemporaries. The Thermals continue in this venerable tradition by expanding upon the anti-science, anti-liberty fundamentalism which many feel has been creeping into political discourse and decision-making in the past 8 years or so, and end up with an utterly compelling vision of a fascist faux-Christian America.
Various songs outline, with biting sarcasm and outrage, the daily regimentation of life in the dystopia, the secret plots to bring down the government, and even the doubts of a believer who can’t quite shake his faith no matter how bad things get. But the most exemplary song on the album, and the most narrative, is “A Pillar of Salt,” which describes a young couple’s desperate struggle to make it out alive.
We were born to sin, we were born to sin
We don‘t think we‘re special, sir, we know everybody is
We built too many walls, yeah, we built too many walls
And now we gotta run, a giant fist is out to crush us.
It draws the parallel to Lot’s flight from Sodom—except this time it is not God but God’s self-appointed representatives whom the fugitives must fear. It’s about doing something difficult, nearly impossible, for the sake of those one loves.
Now I stick to the ground, I stick to the ground
I won’t look twice to the dead walls, I don‘t wanna wind up a pillar of salt
I carry my baby, I carry my baby
Her eyes can barely see, her mouth can barely breathe
I can see she‘s afraid, that‘s why we‘re escaping
So we won‘t have to die, we won‘t have to deny
Our dirty god, our dirty bodies.
So maybe that’s where The Body, the Blood, the Machine differs most from its literary progenitors. With the aid of some addictive guitar hooks and wry humor, there’s a little bit of hope left at the end.
“A Pillar of Salt” on YouTube
“Returning to the Fold (live)” from Pitchfork.tv