Journey to the End of the Night
There are many things that David Lynch should be forgiven for: his rockabilly hairstyle, Dune, his claim that transcendental meditation will bring about world peace, and, most importantly and yet most irritatingly, his role in inspiring hipsters to believe in the idea that art-making should be pursued for the journey rather than the product.
Lynch’s fearless, naïve, and intuitive approach to making art has lead to a body of work that is, as David Foster Wallace wrote of Lynch in 1996, “renaissance-mannish.” He has directed commercials, 16 mm shorts, 35 mm features, television series, music videos, had major exhibitions of his abstract paintings and written music. His example has excited art school and small liberal arts college-educated bohos to embrace the idea of an artist as someone who no longer defines himself by a specific medium, and does not think in binaries like “high” versus “low” or “artist” versus “sell out.” Lynch continues to inspire and remain relevant with young artists because he embraces technological innovation. Davidlynch.com has no doubt inspired surreal blogs and Web sites in which links are hidden, behave randomly or lead nowhere (on purpose). His move from 35mm to digital will surely inspire groups of twenty-somethings with HD video cameras to shoot Buñuel-esque short films. David Lynch is even on Twitter.
Now, we can add to Lynch’s hip vita Dark Night of the Soul, a hand-numbered limited edition book of noirish and macabre photographs inspired by songs written for an eponymous album by the likes of Danger Mouse, Sparklehorse, Iggy Pop, Frank Black, Suzanne Vega, and that Casablanca guy from the Strokes. Oh, and did I mention that the book is published by powerHouse Books, which specializes in art books so dope that you throw up in your mouth a little while browsing their Web site? Regardless, this musical and photographic collaboration is the best argument in years for thinking of art-making as a boundary-less, collaborative process that can bring about electrifying results. Lynch even gets to sing two songs on the disc and there’s a little niche in the back of the book for the CD.
In true Lynchian fashion, the CD is blank—the result of a legal dispute between rapper/producer Danger Mouse (Brian Burton) and his label, EMI, who will not let him release music under his rodent stage name. There used to be a few places where you could download select tracks from DNOTS, but those sources have all dried up for fear of lawsuit. The only place left to listen to the album as it was intended is on NPR.org’s “Exclusive First Listen” Web page, and it doesn’t look like that is going to change any time soon. Neither EMI nor Danger Mouse is offering comment on the legal dispute. It seems that this album is headed for the cultural designation of “cult status.”
But with NPR’s stream still available all these months later, it seems there are two ways to look at the situation: Dark Night of the Soul will live forever in the eternal present of the World Wide Web, or that it has been condemned to a limbo for the stillborn. DNOTS’s incomplete and fleeting nature, it’s finitude, makes every listening session feel like one is receiving precious transmissions from the outer-limits.
Danger Mouse’s preface to the book tells the story of how his and Sparklehorse’s mutual admiration led to hanging out in each others’ studios (Horse’s in the mountains of North Carolina and Mouse’s in LA) acting as creative consultants and lending inspiration to songs that needed jumpstarting. The tag-team process went so well that finally Danger Mouse invited Horse out to LA to “…make a bunch of music together and see what happened.”
“What happened” was the music for Dark Night of the Soul and the realization that they wouldn’t be the ones to do the songs justice. So they drew up a “wish list” of singers they would like to work with and provide lyrics for their songs. Within in a year, they had recorded tracks with Iggy Pop, Wayne Coyne and Steven Drozd of the Flaming Lips, James Mercer of the Shins, Julian Casablanca, Vic Chestnutt, Suzanne Vega, and more. The result was, without any direction or coaxing by Mouse or Horse, an album whose lyrics and atmosphere united around themes of “pain, revenge, war, twisted dreams.” Cue David Lynch. After watching Lynch’s most recent film Inland Empire, Danger Mouse decided to send Lynch a letter asking him to provide a “visual representation” of the album. Lynch eventually said yes, but only if he could also contribute some music, lyrics, and his alien “take-me-to-your-people” voice.
I’ll skip a bit here, so as not to run the risk of repeating what’s already been well-documented in the press, but Dark Night of the Soul is a sensational piece of music: it is dramatic, well-paced, sonically innovative, lyrically poignant and, at times downright spooky.
In the accompanying book, fragments of the song lyrics are printed alongside Lynch’s photographs, which are, well, Lynchian. The text/image pairings are largely ironic, but some create a strong sense of synergy, of a third thing being born; or, to borrow from Lynch, another world being opened to us.
All of this is par for the course for any project involving Lynch, but there is a dimension that begs to be explored, just like the dark and foreboding hallways of Lynch’s films, and that is the heavy spiritual connotation the title Dark Night of the Soul brings.
Written by St. John of the Cross, a 16th-century Spanish Christian mystic of the Carmelite order, Dark Night of the Soul is actually the title of two works of spiritual literature concerning the soul’s journey to union with God, the first being the poem written in 1685 and the second being a novella-length explication of the poem’s meaning written a year later. Both are still considered masterworks of Spanish literature, despite the fact that the poem creepily (to our modern temperament) characterizes the seeker’s yearning for God as, later, the star-crossed Juliet pined for her Romeo:
Oh, night that guided me,
Oh, night more lovely than the dawn,
Oh, night that joined Beloved with lover,
Lover transformed in the Beloved.
Upon my flowery breast,
Kept wholly for himself alone,
There he stayed sleeping,
and I caressed him,
And the fanning cedars made a breeze.
The poem takes place at night, an allegory for the long, dark and narrow road the soul must traverse to reach God, and likewise the majority of the photos in the book are either taken at night, or have been processed to achieve a chiaroscuro effect. So, though I seriously doubt that Danger Mouse, Sparklehorse, and Lynch’s long journey into night is intended to comment on the Spanish monk’s work of mysticism, it crackles with its own lusty existential angst over some of life’s big mysteries.
The lyrics to the opening track, “Revenge,” read as though Coyne and Drozd of the Flaming Lips have been wrestling with the thought of anthropologist/philosopher Rene Girard on the mimetic nature of violence:
Pain, I guess it’s a matter of sensation
But somehow you have a way of avoiding it all
In my mind I have shot you and shot you through your heart
I just didn’t understand that the ricochet is the second part
you can’t hide what you intend, it glows in the dark
once you start the path of revenge there’s no way to stop
the more I try to hurt you the more it hurts me
strange, it seems like a character mutation
though I have all the means of bringing you fuckers down
I can’t make myself to destroy upon command
somehow forgiveness lets the evil make the laws
As the book goes on, the images oscillate between the eerie, the playful, and the nightmarish to accompany the undulating soundscape of the album. One series of four photos features 1950s debutantes in crinoline-poofed skirts. In the first, a woman stares into an ominously flaming charcoal grill. In the second, three women dance in front of an obviously fake ocean backdrop. In the third, only the shadow of a woman is visible against the ocean. The last photo shows signs of an accidental light exposure that blots out the head of a woman, only to be replaced by the red face of a demon.
But the most memorable and interesting of the photos come at the end of the book, meant to accompany the last and title track, “Dark Night of the Soul,” which is sung by Lynch. In these final pages, spectral, screaming faces reminiscent of Francis Bacon’s Pope Innocent X studies emerge from pitch-black backgrounds. (In fact, Bacon is included in the long obligatory list of thanks on the last page of DNOTS.) Bacon, the Irish-born painter whose horrific paintings of loneliness, dissolution and despair, was fascinated with the human mouth and was obsessed with painting it. According to Michael Peppiatt’s study of Bacon, the mouth could “smile and explain . . . it could explode in laughter or give vent to a scream.” The mouth was for Bacon a metaphor for a society that would “crack open to show the savagery beneath.” It was the symbol of a “larger paradox”—the paradox of man, the beast within. And this is ultimately why the crucifixion interested Bacon so much: It was “an elevated example of man’s brutishness.”
Speaking of crucifixion, Jesus only comes up once on the whole album during Iggy Pop’s “Pain,” when he moans about the “fakeness” of “religion and success” and quips, “good karma will not get you anywhere, look at Jesus and his hair.”
But other than the opening track, “Revenge,” and Vic Chestnutt’s “Grim Augury” in which he sings about a murderous dream, the lyrics don’t meditate on the beastly and demonic dimension of mankind (think Lynch’s BOB from the Twin Peaks series), but on the symptoms of modern Man’s solipsism. Both lyrics and imagery conjure the specters of poverty and greed, of debilitating self-doubt, of fear, loneliness, addiction and mental pain.
Iggy Pop intones, “Pain, Pain, Pain.” Jason Lytle sings of a boyfriend who observes, “every time I’m with you I get fucked up … well, what the hell else are we supposed to do?” A series of images of homeless men are accompanied by the words “love … please … come … back …” Suzanne Vega sweetly sings “In your sight you feel your power” in “The Man Who Played God.” James Lytle sings about a man named Jaykub living by himself in a tiny apartment who is a hero in his own mind, and whom Lynch portrays as a schlubby man in a superhero cape doing pushups in his briefs. Sparklehorse’s lyric “i woke up and all my yesterday’s were gone” appears adjacent to an unmade bed and a nightstand filled with pill bottles.
St. John writes, “God leads into the dark night those whom He desires to purify from all these imperfections so that He may bring them farther onward.” Thematically, then, the aim of DNOTS has a lot in common with St. John’s “Dark Night,” as the music and images—like all socially-aware art—lead us through the darkness of the modern soul toward greater awareness that we are not our own light; that we require guidance; we require waking.
And let me be the first to attest that multiple encounters with DNOTS pays dividends. The most provocative pairing of image and lyric in the whole book is when James Mercer of the Shins laments “a good life will never be enough” and on the facing page Lynch’s image is of a tiny plastic lamb standing on an outstretched palm. Perhaps the lamb imagery is too sentimental, too easily Christic for some, but when I looked at that page while listening to the album for easily the fortieth time and suddently thought, “Jesus,” the hair stood up on the back of my neck.
I’m not trying to suggest the work has a Crypto-Christian undercurrent, as some critics have with Warhol or Kerouac, but I will say that DNOTS has chipped away at my cynicism, renewed my faith that art can connect us to higher concerns. It has also reminded me that when we treat art as a journey, an experience to be savored, protected and nurtured, reflected and meditated upon, is when we begin to admit that perhaps the words we use, the sounds we make, the images we render are, as the poet Robert Hass writes, “some tragic falling off from a first world / of undivided light.”
Dave Griffith is the author of A Good War is Hard to Find: The Art of Violence in America (Soft Skull). He teaches at Sweet Briar College in Virginia. Check out his new blog Any Poorer Than Dead.