Getting Lost To Get Found : Revisiting Godspeed You! Black Emperor's Second LP
"Now it's shrunk down to almost nothing…they called it the 'playground of the world'…when I was very small, I even got lost at Coney Island, but they found me…"
When taken only for what it is, this moment is small, innocuous. It comes near the end of a somewhat rambling monologue delivered by a man credited as Murray Ostril. In the speech, he shares his memories of Coney Island and compares what it was in its heyday to the shell of itself it has since become. This occurs about halfway into Godspeed You! Black Emperor's second LP, Lift Your Skinny Fists Like Antennas To Heaven; it's surrounded by 80+ minutes of smoke-filled drones and crushing melodic peaks. It is a moment of introspection and nostalgia, a disarming attempt at connection between speaker and listener (and the audience by extension). But since it isn't offered within the context of a conversation, it ends up sounding more like the speaker is talking to himself, giving the proceedings a surreal, dreamlike quality. It's ethereality is striking, giving vitality to an interlude that could easily feel dismissible at first glance.
In the decade-and-a-half since Lift's release, this trifling bit of reverie is the thing that has anchored me in the album as a listener. It is the neon-bright advertisement of the all-too-human heart at the center of the glorious and terrible monstrosity that Godspeed can, and does, sometimes create. I first bought this album as a used CD at a local record store with no idea of what it was, I was irrationally attracted to the title and minimalist cover art. At some point in the getting-acquainted phase, I remember falling asleep with the CD playing and waking up to Murray Ostril's narration (which occurs during the "Sleep" movement), and I remember it choking me up with its plainspoken nostalgia and yearning for a simpler time. This helped me find my bearings on a piece of work that I have been listening to for years…but still wouldn't claim to really know.
Arguably the purest distillation of all the things Godspeed does so well, Lift Your Skinny Fists is comprised of scattered thoughts plucked from the air, set to music that is by turns euphoric, foreboding, and filled with outright dread, and interwoven into symphonic movements that each masterfully work to evoke a range of emotions. The true strength of this modality is that it seems to be recorded almost entirely live, with minimal additions and tweaks coming during the mixing process. While there are lots of acts that record primarily live (as opposed to the parts being played separately and then combined later), one has the sense with Godspeed that the recording is not only of live music, but also the recording of a time and place. To re-listen is not to just hear songs and orchestration that one knows and recognizes, but to re-engage with the entirety of a time and place, not only with the instruments and the players but with every detail of the performance down to the very air in the room. The Canadian collective (I hesitate to call them a "band") uses their surroundings to their advantage like no one else, and it comes through on their albums. They even go so far as to give full-member status to the artist behind their film projection apparatus, and anyone who has ever seen them live can appreciate how essential the visual aspect is to the overall experience.
Godspeed is almost as well-known for their politics as they are their music. At concerts, their merch areas tend to include independent and underground books on anarchism and counter-culture. From the moment of their creation, they operated under a very simple rule: "No singer no leader no interviews no press photos" - a rule that they have adhered to admirably (with only a few minor exceptions) throughout their 20-year history. The fact that they operate collectively means that they're not beholden to the whims of any one person's creative direction or vision. They disdain the societal conventions of music-making so much that they don't even make "songs" in what might be considered a "normal" sense, each of their albums contain long, sweeping passages with repeating motifs and bracing changes in dynamics over their 10- to 25-minute runtimes. In this respect, I have always thought of them as "more punk than punk" - if punk, as a philosophy, can be said to be about blowing holes in the establishment to shed light on those outside the mainstream, Godspeed is about upending the establishment completely, to the benefit of all. Stated another way: punk tries to rig the game by operating within it and stretching the rules; Godspeed isn't playing any games, least of all one that commodifies people and profits by breaking the backs of entire generations of its participants.
Lift Your Skinny Fists remains a cornerstone album for me - it was an introduction to post-rock, a step forward for my ability to appreciate instrumental music, and a wake-up call to upsetting features of our culture that I hadn't wanted to acknowledge before. I still come back to this album when I need a friend in righteous indignation. I still come back to it when I need sounds that will shake the rafters. I still come back to it when I need hope in the face of what the world increasingly seems to be turning itself into. And when I get lost in the album's overgrown forests, become disoriented on its empty beaches, or end up destitute underneath its broken skylines, I can always rest easy in the knowledge that Murray will be along soon…and he'll tell me again about the time he got lost at Coney Island…