Godspeed You Black Emperor – Lift Your Skinny Fists Like Antennas To Heaven

Absurdity is the central problem with Godspeed You Black Emperor! Their poetry-slam titles; their thick cardboard packaging; their interminable song-suites; their huge huge thundercloud chords; their name with its sudden exclamation mark – Godspeed are operating on a register larger and more serious than rock has recently been used to. One reaction to this might and solemnity is to call them the best band in the world. Another is to say, Hold on a minute, this is ridiculous, and hate Godspeed because of that, and say they’re the worst band in the world.

What it boils down to is that there are still some people who are worried that rock music isn’t taken seriously enough, might not be seen as Art quite yet, and a lot of those people have pens or keyboards. A band like Godspeed come along and do something new but also a bit obvious, which is to make massive instrumental rock, with a lot of nods to other Art Music (minimalism, noise, etc.) and excellent portentious titles in cryptic packaging, and the keyboard people like it a lot. The thing is, though, that Art itself isn’t really being seen as Art any more: you have people like David Eggers in the bestseller lists, and Spike Jonze making films that feel like Borges and pop videos that feel like video art. And you have Artists themselves making awful pop CDs and doing funny, slight, self-celebratory conceptual artworks. In the midst of all this wised-up, brittle stuff going on in the culture, for rock to pop up and beat its chest for Godspeed-style big art seems a bit, well, silly.

Obviously there are some people who hate all that kind of art play anyway, and for those people Godspeed are exactly what was needed. There are also some people who would say that Godspeed themselves are a funny, non-serious band by intent, though that for me is too big a stretch. Besides, they certainly aren’t recieved as a pack of jokers. I also think that maybe Godspeed themselves want to pull back from the idea that they might be conceptualists in a pretentious, distanced sense: the title of this CD may sound like an installation but the titles of the four pieces which comprise it are mostly dreary one-word things: “Storm”, “Static”, “Sleep”. Godspeed are obviously a very deliberate band and those short titles tell me that they don’t want too much getting in the way of the music and its big, raw ideas.

A lot of critics this time round have suddenly woken up to the fact that said ideas are extremely vague, particularly the non-musical agenda which the band were assumed to have: something about politics and alienation and the futility and neccessity of resistance to a corporatised world. This vagueness could be seen as lessening what Godspeed do, but I think it works well: it means the band seem oppressive and serious without being hectoring. Besides, there are books which set out the anti-globalist case far better than an album could, even a very long one. What a pop album can do in this context is tap some subconscious or intuitive sense that all is not well with our times (or more rarely that all is well with them, but usually pop groups don’t see the mileage in that).

Does “Raise Your Skinny Fists….” manage this? Generally not. It presses most of the right buttons but it ends up sounding like the kind of music Oliver Stone would commission if he wanted to make some great statement movie about modernity and its crisis. There’s something predictable about it: not the exact sounds which the band make moment to moment, but the general shape of the record – one hundred minutes in four big chunks, all with crescendoes and poignant soundbites and ambient drift. It seems windy and empty even when specific passages are very good. Which they are: “Raise Your Skinny Fists…” is certainly a record worth hearing even if in the larger scheme of things it’s slightly laughable.

The opening five minutes, for example, are quite lovely: here Godspeed sound very like Spiritualised, all airy melody lines and noisy brass and monumental martial drums. Better than most Spiritualised, in fact, because there’s more groove to it and there’s also the sense that the track might go on being this good for twenty-two minutes, which remains a delicious idea even when you know it’s a false one. It’s thrilling; it’s corny; it’s thrilling because it’s corny.

Corny is a good word to describe a lot of this record, really. Godspeed are sometimes talked about using words like ‘drone rock’, but they almost never stand still enough to drone properly: there’s usually someone pressing them on to towards a melodic sweep or fat filmic crescendo a minute or two away. This is why “Lift…” feels too long: it’s not the bits where nothing happens, it’s that there are far too many bits where something does happen and once you’ve heard one hammering, howling, stormy, emotional passage you don’t feel like hearing another one quite as soon as you are likely to.

There are lengths of most tracks which are interesting – the nervy, distorted keyboard jangle near the start of “Antennas To Heaven”, for example, and the way that piece lurches sidelong into jauntiness here and there. There are also parts of most tracks which are stupid and crass, and these parts are almost always the ones where Godspeed deploy their near-trademark found voices. The band should probably lock themselves away for a couple of weeks with nothing but Byrne and Eno’s My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts on the stereo to remind themselves that there are ways to do this old trick well. There is probably no dance act in the world today, Fatboy Slim excepted, who would sample the ranting religious nut on “Static”: from the second he shows up you know he’s going to be boring and awful, a slice of spiritual kitsch to make Godspeed feel a bit more meaningful. The children on the fourth track are nice but maybe two percent as effective or well-used as the children on the second half of last year’s Position Normal album.

The other two samples are useful because they illuminate Godspeed’s vague political ideas a bit more. On the opening track, during a long quiet patch, you get a shopping mall announcement asking you-the-customer not to give money to itinerants: this is a good summation of the dislikeable inhumanity of consumer culture but in the context of this band’s billows and squalls its sudden injection of reality seems odd. You imagine Godspeed You Black Emperor are uncomfortable with the idea of shopping malls generally, certainly more so than they are with the idea of beggars. The sample on “Sleep” sorts things out a little: it’s an old man describing how people used to sleep on the beach at Coney Island, and how they don’t any more, and how sad that is.

It makes you think, anyway. On the one hand the lack of beach sleepers speaks of our lack of community and the decline of the human spirit in a world obsessed with ease; on the other hand not sleeping on the beach is probably more comfortable, and also you can bet there are people having just as much fun as the old man had at Coney Island, but he doesn’t know who or where they are. Maybe Godspeed don’t want you to think about these things at all, maybe they just like the sound of the creaking old voice against the swell of violins. My guess is that they like the sound and the sentiments: certainly the slow translucent string passages the speech fades into feel convincing and committed.

Godspeed’s reactionary streak is essential to what they do but handled badly – as here – it can deflate their music, and leave you feeling uncomfortable listening to it. There’s a lot to admire about them and some aspects are exciting – the gang mentality, the longer titles, parts of the sound as mentioned – but in the end they’re a frustrating band, because a frustrated one. They’ve come along in a nervy, knowing, accelerated pop era where this kind of maximalism is the easiest way to make any We-Are-Important move. And like some world’s-biggest-skyscraper project, the scope of it exceeds its practicality.