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The Trials of Van Occupanther – Midlake

Bella Union Records

Love is a sad beautiful thing.

Adjectives hang on it like dryer lint. Metaphors make it common. Characters cast their neurosis all over love till it gags and suffocates from the weight. The poets? What the fuck do the poets know about love? Bukowski wrote there are many poets, but very little poetry. And he was right. These days every hipster with a guitar and a MySpace account thinks he’s Bob Dylan. Thinks he is going to make a magical album. Thinks he can write about love. Well, you can’t. Even Shakespeare only had this to say: “some good, some bad.” Yet every writer continues to take a stab at life’s grand subjectits siren call crashing her into the rocks time and time again. I’ve tried to write about it, and when I started this piece I first thought, “You can’t write about love directly or indirectly.” But as I started exploring Midlake’s lyrics with my criticism, I realized my initial thesis was false. Midlake does write about love: directly and indirectly.

And they do so by minding every line.

I’ve had a lot of trouble writing this essay. My kind and gentle editor granted me three deadline extensions, and with that time I discovered what my block was. One of my favorite films is Il Postino. A young postman befriends Pablo Neruda, who teaches him about poetry. Early in the film, the young man asks Neruda to interpret a line for him, to which Neruda responds, “When you discuss poetry, you make it banal.” This has been a firm belief of mine for a long time. If you try and interpret or translate or move poetry from its initial place, you destroy it. Since Midlake is very much a band of lines and place, any attempt on my part to move their lyrics from their sonic place to this literary place will necessarily flatten them. Take my favorite lines from The Trials of Van Occupanther from the song “Chasing After Deer”:

You’re always chasing after deer

Oh my dear, oh my dear

Don’t ask me to tell you what they mean. I will tell you every time I hear them the melancholy of my current relationship, which also had something to do with the missed deadlines, comes gushing to my chest. I’ve come to realize poetry is not an art of specifics. A sad song about divorce does not necessarily help you deal with your divorce. But when a poet makes music with language, and surrounds that language with warm sounds, the poetry applies to everything:

Would you ever want to run around with bandits

To see many places and hide in ditches

Why is it every time I hear those lines from the song “Bandits” also from Van Occupanther I think of the way my love laughs? I think of the time she hurt her back, and I couldn’t help making her laugh even though every time she did so she her back hurt worse. And even though we didn’t kiss or hug or make love, there was no wine or fire involved, none of the usual stuffs of romance, and we were sitting in a tiny office in a community college in Virginia, that is still one of the most intimate moments I have had.

Love and poetry do not exist in specifics, but in the music of language and people.

Midlake’s lyrics are written with the grace and ease of modern American poetry. In the past so many years, instead of sung lyrics, the lines of the deceptively simple style of poetry, practiced by people like Billy Collins and Tony Hoagland and Stephen Dobyns and Lisel Mueller have colored my life with meaning. As a bonus, with Midlake we have this music that is lush and powerful. The story the music and poetry tells is sad and beautiful. It is a story of love, but it is also a story of place. A place of stone houses, of woods, of deer, of the sea and ocean, of marriage and sadness, of work and rest, of seasons and shelter, of happiness and fears, of us and everything.

For listening to Midlake, perhaps because of their beautiful harmonies, you get the sense the entire band is communicating with you. Not one guy writing about his ex-girlfriend, but a group of men, of sensitive, intelligent men, who have seen much of the world, and instead of trying to recreate that world in a collection of songs, have decided to create a place, a place both concrete and imaginary. A place where they can write about love directly and indirectly.

I have been listening to Midlake nonstop for two months, and I feel these words fail them. I feel I still don’t quite understand what or where the two different places they have created with Van Occupanther and Bamnan and Silvercork are. I don’t quite understand how the band that put out the Milkmaid Grand Army EP became the band that put out Banman, or how that band became the band that put out Van Occupanther. Sonically, all three could not be more different.

Lyrically the band went from not totally developed:

Remember the place you know

Where things were so still

We were so still, it’s perfect for my sweet queen

To mad mad mad:

When we’re older we will thank the jungler for all the gold that comes out of our pockets

To beautiful:

For myself I must remind

That the woods are usually kind

And the sea is not mine

I cannot imagine where they will go next. I will tell you this, cool and gracious reader, I will be listening. I will also tell you sitting on my desktop is a file called “midlake junk” that holds four thousand words. Four thousand words that fail worse than these to capture some of Midlake’s magic, partly because Jason Lee said it best:

“The Trials of Van Occupanther is now one of the most important modern records I own. In an age of overly-used irony and disconnected nonchalance, this record actually means something, and Midlake should be forever hailed for their unique and genuine approach to music. Simply put, Van Occupanther has backbone, and the fact that you don’t feel cheated by it gives one hope that sincerity can still exist within modern alternative music.”

Midlake has helped me through a difficult time with an incredible woman who may never be mine, and they have reintroduced me to writing. Because though a significant chunk of my income comes from writing magazine articles, it has been a long time since I wrote something for myself. Listening to Midlake has allowed me to go back to my old notebooks, dozens of them full of words I never even thought about publishing. So, thanks, Midlake.

It is uncanny how accurate I was three short years ago:

Nights in the Keys I lie awake not wanting to sleep because the soft waves push and pull the thoughts around my head in a drowsy wonder. I dream of growing up and becoming fabulously sad over a girlliving a life of poetic melancholy. People stop and stare and point and say, “There he is, the noble, unrequited lover.”

What a thing to do?

I could have been a gambler, a weightlifter, a CEO.

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