‘You can’t say “I love you” ironically’: Nashville and the new earnestness

David Dark has seen into something emerging out of popular culture – the end of this age of bitter irony.

Using the lyrics of the latest Mountain Goats CD “The Life of the World to Come” as a plum line (every track is named for a biblical referent), Mr. Dark muses,

There is a time and a place for irony, we understand, but it isn’t a big enough place to live in. There’s not enough air there. You can’t say “I love you” ironically.

On the one hand, it may surely seem like so much thin gruel to look into one CD and see the whole world turning. On the other hand, now that we’re only a few days away from the end of the first decade of a new millennium – a decade that, well, overpromised and underdelivered – anything suggesting a little less detachment and a little more sincerity sounds like a meme we can get behind.

Are we open to the possibility of being moved, of discerning a summons? Such are the demands of indie folk in the most traditional, historically thick sense. I’m reminded of the ways album reviewers (Pitchfork, Rolling Stone, et al.) often wriggle uncomfortably around the unavoidably religious visions of Judee Sill, Prince, Leonard Cohen, David Bazan, or Sufjan Stevens. I pity the poor reviewer whose vocabularies are strained to the point of incoherence in their attempts to give an account of what these figures are up to in sufficiently secular-sounding phrases. How to talk about it without sounding sold on it the least little bit? The critical posture that believes one can poignantly speak of a “spiritual component” or an odd, little, isolatable spot on the cultural map called “religious concerns,” for instance, simply won’t do justice to its subject when it comes to an artist’s saturation by and within the life of sacred traditions—organic subcultures always more complicated, mobile, and lively than what a caricatured reductionistic account of religiosity will allow.

If that feels familiar; if it feels like we already started down this road once or twice or a hundred times before and were sidetracked or dragged back into a safe place of disengaged irony, it’s probably because that’s exactly what happened. (“Hope,” anyone?) Yet Mr. Dark went to a Mountain Goats concert recently, and he saw something real happening.

I watched a woman nearby move her hand from her heart toward the stage with a satisfied smile which was neither the look of someone watching a stand-up routine nor that of an maniacally devoted fan. It was one person’s voice being lifted by the voice of another. Poetic possibilities were being reasserted and consciousness was being raised. Not exclusively by way of the performers on stage, but by way of a communal exercise, by a feat of attentiveness which we’d all signed up for in the hope of words ringing true. People were depending on one another. Whatever strains of deafening dysfunction we’d had foisted upon us, we were traditioning our way out of them in this moment. Everyone was a little less alone. Sweetness followed.

What do you suppose would happen if we could read descriptions like this and not automatically detach from them? Is this foolishness to shame the wise?

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