“The Celebration of Light. But don’t forget about the darkness. The darkness is where art is created.” This is a paraphrase of Mother Mother’s lead singer, Ryan Guldemond, at the Vancouver band’s free concert preceding the final night of fireworks at Vancouver’s annual Celebration of Light. It’s a three-country competition held in early August each year on a Sat-Wed-Sat schedule. This year, England, Canada, and Thailand each had a night to fire 25 minutes of -works set to music off a barge in English Bay.
I usually watch the show from farther away, but this time I was lured into the hoard of beach blankets and stumbling drunks to watch Mother Mother’s free show. I admit that it took me a while to get into this band. Not because of their sometimes dissonant lyrical delivery (that I have also learned to love), but because their name reminded me of I Mother Earth: a band that I will forever loathe because their song, “Summertime in the Void,” ruined one of the Big Shiny Tunes compilations of my youth. I forgave lead-singer Edwin because of his solo effort “Alive,” but bands with the word “mother” in them were still blacklisted.
Mother Mother’s “Wrecking Ball” changed that. I “gotta wanna be a battering ram” rang through my head at the most unrelated moments for the last few years.
And then came their latest album The Sticks.
If you read my review / literary analysis of Arcade Fire’s The Suburbs, then you’re probably aware of my love of an album that has a driving theme throughout that makes it a complete work of art rather than a random collection of songs. The Sticks is such a concept album.
The recurring themes of “the sticks” vs. the city; the unfulfilling side of love vs. the overpowering lust-drive; and fire, destruction, and insignificance are paced extremely well throughout the album and are further heightened by the paratext of the album artwork and then again by the comments that Ryan made during the concert. I was considering being lazy and writing about the album theme by theme, but I think it’s more rewarding (for me and my one guaranteed reader, Dissin’ Terry) to organise the review song-by-song. Sorry it’s so late!
*Note: when I literarily refer to “the narrator” I probably mean the vox of Ryan+Molly+Jasmin intermingling. And, as a heads up, the persona of the narrator is likely to change in each track.
Introductory songs to albums are fun. Sigur Ros’s Ágætis byrjun, My Chemical Romance’s The Black Parade, The Bravery’s Sun and the Moon, Our Lady Piece’s Spiritual Machines, and (Ryan Gosling’s band) Dead Man’s Bones’s self-titled album all use short intro songs (or readings) to set the tone before the albums kick-off.
“Omen” immediately confronts the listener with a world where something is wrong—our world. Yeah, we have “daffodils”, but we also have “acid rain”. The problems don’t matter though because we can do the normal human thing and sing, “that’s all right, that’s okay / I can look the other way”. If that doesn’t work, we can head off away from society “with a couple of sticks and a couple of stones/ and lay my bones”.
This appropriately ominous ending to the intro (sung by Ryan and a little boy) does not confirm whether the sticks will be a positive or a negative place. The “sticks and stones” remind us of our childhoods and the beatings we received, and “lay our bones” could be a relaxing sleep in the grass, or a more permanent one in the grave.
2. The Sticks
As in Arcade Fire’s The Suburbs, The Sticks villainises the influence of the city. Mother Mother longs for escape from a world with problems that they recognise. The superficiality of the city is (as in The Suburbs and in The National’s High Violet) represented by nonsense lyrics. “Get away from all the la-di-da”. The sticks is a place in the wilderness where the “new world shit” has no influence. At first it seems idyllic: we can go there and read “Crusoe to get into the theme”. However, once there things without law can get rough. The narrator, terrifyingly, is going to recreate his “papa’s tricks” on the woman he brings with him: “a little Wiccan thing”. Without law, the rape of the wild woman will not be prevented because “there ain’t no help line in the sticks”.
The city’s bad, but the sticks don’t seem any better. This is, honestly, the strength of the album which most critics (from the reviews I’ve read) have missed. They have labelled the sticks as being either the best place to go or as hell. The Sticks is masterful album precisely because Mother Mother does not preach a philosophy. They present the isolation and darkness in both worlds and let the listeners focus on the aspects which resonate with them the most. My personal opinion would be as invalid to you as Mother Mother’s (if you asked them). The meaning is yours.
But don’t decide yet! The rest of the album will give you more to masticate.
3. Let’s Fall in Love
The first single from the album may not appear to be related to the “sticks” theme, but that’s because the whole album is dealing with emotions of isolation and not necessarily the strictly labelled place “the sticks”.
This sarcastic track’s title, “Let’s Fall in Love,” is reminiscent of Cole Porter’s classic “Let’s Do It (Let’s Fall in Love)”, but instead of having jokes about “educated fleas” doing it, Mother Mother’s song has jokes about parents wishing that they hadn’t done it.
Love is sex. Love is love. Everyone—described as “only the unlucky of us”—falls in love: the ugly, the stupid, monkeys in the zoo, Mary, and Joseph (“Joey”). “Even baby, baby Jesus did it”. This is the first Christian reference of the album, and there will be more. If love is love, then sure: Jesus loved humanity. If love is sex: the song just got a bit more blasphemously awesome.
4. Business Man
If “The Sticks” is the city-critique to match Arcade Fire’s “The Suburbs”, then “Business Man” is Mother Mother’s critique of the city-dweller to match their “Modern Man”.
The Business Man is “living in a coma”: a self-inflicted numbness to the world and ideas around him. He shakes (hands) and spits (on his inferiors), but not in the way that he should. He should shake and spit like a rock or punk band, respectively. He should think critically and find the right targets for his ire instead of “buying stocks and bonds and shares in the moon”.
5. Dread in my Heart
This song slows down the tempo of the album in what could easily be an inner monologue of a business man (or other city-dweller) becoming awakened to the world around him.
The narrator—a bro persona who is an unmotivated brawler—wishes he could change and “fight the good fight instead” of being a dick and “fisti-fucking-cuffin in the dirt”. Sadly, he knows that he’s not going to change because change is such a long process. He considers the idea of “changing his shirt” because any change can be “a good start”, but decides against even that, lamenting almost apologetically, “not today”.
Another popular single from the album, this song made the crowd at the Celebration of Light go wild (but not quite to the sticks). It’s an up-beat song that re-establishes the energy of the album and goes into some of the most interesting philosophy of The Sticks.
There are “millions, billions, and trillions of stars”, but the narrator is “down here low, fussing over scars on [his] soul”. As the chorus explains, his soul is “nothing” and he’s trying to make something out of it, just like the Big Bang.
There is a spoken interlude in the middle of the song in which the narrator talks to the “bro” from “Dread in my Heart” who clearly liked to fight. The narrator asks him:
Do you ever really think about the grains?
Every little one’s got a million things.
Every little bit’s got a billion bits.
And that ain’t it, no that ain’t it
And did you know that when you get really close
Nothing really touches, bro, just kind of floats?
So when you think it might just come to blows
Just so you know, it won’t, because it can’t bro.
This philosophy suggests that fighting is pointless because nothing really touches. Even when the floating atoms in your hand approach the floating atoms in someone’s face, those atoms never really touch, making the punch irrelevant.
I’m not sure that someone with a black eye would completely agree, but this is quite an original way to present pacifism.
Like “the sticks”, “happy” is a location in the world of this album—or at least the narrator wonders if it is “a place that we can go”. The song is slow and does not represent the emotion of happiness in an expected way. Instead, happiness is presented as being sad, even in delightful activities like masturbation: “nothing makes me happy like getting off / reaching for the saddest little cloth”. Happy is complacency and complacency “is not enough”.
8. Bit by Bit
The catchiest song from the album was amazing live. The stage was on top of the bathhouse at English Bay Beach so the band was in a tent above the crowd, so when Mother Mother sang “up top on a pretty little mountain / fuck off you people on the ground, yeah”, it felt disturbingly accurate.
The band had found the sticks above us, and we were left below in a rabble of business men and their families.
“Bit by Bit” continues most of the themes and imagery found in “The Sticks”. Here, the narrator mentions finding a good book to read (“Crusoe” from “The Sticks”) and that he’ll “make a mistress of a little Wiccan thing” (the same woman referenced in the earlier song). The “la-di-da” of the city is back and encourages the band to get “on a mountain / away from the people on the ground and / some cop sticking up my wagon / chop chop we gonna build a cabin / up top on a pretty little mountain”. “Stick” is used as the phrasal verb here as the cop holds them up as if he were a highway robber and not law enforcement. The band’s reaction to this is implied in the “chop chop”. The axe strokes are shared between the cop and the action of building the cabin. The sticks is a place to live in a cabin in the wilderness but it also involves getting away from (and killing) the law.
This song also has my favourite image on album: the narrator is a tramp with his “properties all bundled up / on the branch of a popular tree, [sauntering] off / with a buck and a wildebeest”. The hobo’s animal companions are reminiscent of Disney fantasies, but the animal’s names have a wild strength so perfect for the theme.
9. Latter Days
Ah, we are at the end of days and the second coming is at hand. The “guys of the modern day [are] gutting the goose with the golden egg”, but the narrator isn’t leaving his “cave” in the sticks because he doesn’t know how to behave in the modern world.
The “the girl with the modern face” is just as confusing to him. “She got lipstick an inch thick and pixelates”—taking a selfie (a picture of herself) and posting it online.
The narrator wonders “What could it be she is trying to say? / What kind of love is she trying to make? / What kind of love would she make to me?” As seen in a few earlier songs, the narrator is struggling with whether love is emotional or sexual. He wonders what the girl wants, but then replaces that with his own desire for her, perhaps fantasizing about her with “the saddest little cloth” from “Happy”. This reaction seems to match the “guys of the modern day” to me . . .
10. Little Pistols
This is a dark one that begins like this:
“Upon my side where it is felt / I pack a little pistol on my pistol belt / I think it might be fear / of the world and the way it makes you feel afraid”.
I like the phrasing at the beginning of the song because grammatically it’s not clear whether the pistols that the narrator wears are metaphors for fear, or if fear makes him want to wear the pistols.
The narrator also has chips in his head that keep track of him and his paranoia leads to “a little pistol party” where he “kills ‘em all”. The “brimstone in [his] garden” and “roses set on fire” that follows suggest that he is in Hell (or at least the afterlife) where he meets the Jesus (“what a liar”) and “trades licks with” musician Muddy Waters. This solution is “what’s best for” the narrator, he assumes. Indeed, by the end of the song he doesn’t need little pistols anymore. The fear is gone once you’re dead.
Death (like going to the sticks) is a pretty extreme escape from one imperfect place to another.
11. Love it Dissipates
This slow song uses a series of third conditionals (that express impossibility) to explain what symbolic (and essential) accessory the narrator would be to the images he makes up for the woman to whom he’s singing. Again, love not a many-splendid thing on this album.
For example: “If you were a junkie, I’d be your fix / If you were a critic, I’d be your pick”.
Love, it dissipates after the final couplet: “If you were a convict, I’d be your cell / If you were a housewife, I’d be your living hell”. The narrator equates the home to a cell, and yet also suggests the type of husband he’d because of the way he’d love—whatever “love” means.
12. Cry Forum
Cute pun for this one’s title: “I’ll cry for ‘em at the Cry Forum”.
The Cry Forum is the church, which is presented as a place where people are “talking to the air”. The “pro-choice” (as he labels himself) narrator does not understand the “populous in prayer” and wonders “Are they all out of touch? / Are they touching it too much? / Are they on some kind of drug / that I haven’t done enough of?”
The patrons of the church are saying hurtful things and the narrator “feel[s] envy for the stony ones” who are not affected by the words. This final line is followed by a recitation in German (for some reason) of the first stanza of Rudyard Kipling’s poem “If”.
The liner notes of the album have the German translation of the poem, but here’s the English:
If you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you,
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
But make allowance for their doubting too;
If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,
Or being lied about, don’t deal in lies,
Or being hated, don’t give way to hating,
And yet don’t look too good, nor talk too wise:
. . .
The end of them poem ends all the “if-clauses”:
Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,
And—which is more—you’ll be a Man, my son!
It’s an awesome inclusion for a few reasons. Firstly, the stoic poem follows the line about “envying the stony ones” (like Kipling, apparently). Also, Kipling wrote The Jungle Book. Like Robinson Crusoe, that seems like an appropriate book to take to the sticks.
13. Waiting for the World to End
In another song on the theme of the end of days, the narrator sings: “I give in to a morbid fantasy / death to a billion families and me”. He wants the “burning hell” from “Little Pistols” and waits, waits, waits for this world to end.
Because the waiting is taking so long, the narrator urges us to go with him:
“Everybody come with me / Let’s throw ourselves off Hubbard’s peak / And we’ll tumble down the mountain side / Into the mouth of all our great divides”.
This line is especially awesome because at first I thought Ryan was singing “Hubbert’s peak” which would refer to M. King Hubbert’s peak oil theory, making the line a reference to the way that, tired of waiting for the world to end, we have tried to speed up the process.
However, the liner notes read “Hubbard’s peak” which means it’s an actual mountain rather than a metaphorical one. Mount Hubbard is on the border of the Yukon and Alaska, so the “great divide” describes the borders humans have arbitrarily made on the land that have shaped their world views: world views that would not be relevant in the borderless sticks.
14. To the Wild
Sung by Molly, this is last official song of the album although, depending on your copy, you might have a bonus tracks. It’s lyrically short, yet does an excellent job tying together a lot of the album’s themes.
The song is full of fire. Burn the “pages”, “the new ages”, “that old girlfriend”, and “that old apartment” and “Run back to the wild.” The child’s voice from “Omen” whispers over the end too.
The best line of the song is “take off your cage” as if a cage is something we can remove willingly.
Wait, weren’t you paying attention? It is something you can remove. You are blinded in the celebration of light. “Don’t forget about the darkness”, Ryan warned the crowd of fireworks enthusiasts. “Spill your guts for once in your life”. Get out of your cage. “Look at the ripples on the water. The ripples will change your life.” But when the response is a cacophony of private conversations, Ryan knew his audience was one of business men. “Don’t worry about it tonight. Just enjoy the calamity in the sky.”