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The Weakerthans’ Liturgy of the Other Hours

By Eve Tushnet

Posted 4/10/08 at 12:46 AM

 

All the new thinking is about loss.
In this it resembles all the old thinking.
–Robert Hass, “Meditation at Lagunitas”

The much-pierced guy beside me is yelling, “Benediction! Benediction!”, practically begging; he’s ecstatic when he finally gets what he wants.

We’re not at a papal Mass, and Johnny Be Postpunk over there isn’t asking for a blessing. We’re at a Weakerthans show: the Canadian punk band that has come up with two of the best albums of the past ten years. Down in the surf of catchy guitars and pensive or playful lyrics, the Weakerthans have created some of the most poignant recent songs about longing, searching, and mourning. Their last two albums, Reconstruction Site and Reunion Tour, are veined with religious references, almost enough to make a Liturgy of the Other Hours: “Psalm for the Elks Lodge Last Call,” “the daily prayers of set lists,” “ask St. Boniface and St. Vital to preserve me from my past”; and “Hospital Vespers,” a song stark enough that I have to steel myself before I can put the CD on.

Thank you for the flowers and the book by Derrida,
But I must be getting back to dear Antarctica.
—“Our Retired Explorer (Dines with Michel Foucault in Paris, 1961)”

The two albums are noticeably different: the characters in the songs of Reconstruction Site are mostly stuck, trapped in traffic (“the driver checks his mirrors, fifteen minutes late”) or trapped in frustration (a cat pleads with her depressed owner: “All you ever want to do is drink and watch TV!” or trapped in memory (“a little boy under the table with cake in his hair/stared at the grown-ups’ feet as they danced and swayed”). They’re snowbound and weary and confused, “living here between reasons to live.”

Reunion Tour sees the ice start to break up: Edward Hopper’s “Sun in an Empty Room” becomes a room in a house whose tenants are moving on, packing up the dishes and sending the furniture “back to its Goodwill home.” Even Virtute the cat, who spent Reconstruction Site trying to get her owner to “stop the self-defeating/lies you’ve been repeating since the day you brought me home,” finally skedaddles, and despite her owner’s pleading song in the alleyways, she isn’t coming back. But moving on doesn’t mean that the longing stops, the need for someone who’s gone.

Hey, every other hour I pass that house where you told me that you had to go.
I wonder if the landlord has fixed the crack that I stared at instead of staring back at you.
—“Civil Twilight”

In Fides et Ratio (Faith and Reason), John Paul II argued that the basic conditions of human life propel us into philosophy: “The truth comes initially to the human being as a question: Does life have a meaning? Where is it going? At first sight, personal existence may seem completely meaningless. It is not necessary to turn to the philosophers of the absurd or to the provocative questioning found in the Book of Job in order to have doubts about life’s meaning. The daily experience of suffering—in one’s own life and in the lives of others—and the array of facts which seem inexplicable to reason are enough to ensure that a question as dramatic as the question of meaning cannot be evaded. Moreover, the first absolutely certain truth of our life, beyond the fact that we exist, is the inevitability of our death. Given this unsettling fact, the search for a full answer is inescapable. Each of us has both the desire and the duty to know the truth of our own destiny. We want to know if death will be the definitive end of our life or if there is something beyond—if it is possible to hope for an afterlife or not. …No one can avoid this questioning, neither the philosopher nor the ordinary person.”

That needy, yearning search animates the songs here, with their big metaphors of shy explorers and hometown heroes and restless cats. I would put both of these albums within the tradition of the death-haunted literature of friendship, of which Augustine’s Confessions may be the best-known example. The tone of voice is matter-of-fact, the music ridiculously tuneful (I dare you not to get at least one of these songs stuck in your head after just one listen). There’s a lot of quiet, self-deprecating, somewhat geeky humor. And yet it adds up to a litany of grieving questions, the kind of questions that get lived through rather than answered.

To him that overcometh I will give a white stone, and in the stone a new name written, which no man knoweth saving him that receiveth it.
—Revelation 2:17

When you come back, bring
A new name for everything.
—“A New Name for Everything”

The songs mostly exist alongside religious devotion rather than obviously within it. “Hospital Vespers” is the most obvious example: The heart of Reconstruction Site, vocals struggling up from the bruisy confusion of backwards-masked music, it depicts what it’s like to recognize sublimity without quite being able to enter into it oneself. But distance doesn’t mean disbelief or denial. As the tired, humiliated, wry cryptozoologist of “Bigfoot!” insists, “The visions that I see believe in me.”

You said, “Hey, can you help me? I can’t reach it,”
Pointed at the camera in the ceiling.
I climbed up, blocked it so they couldn’t see,
Turned to find you out of bed and kneeling.
Before the nurses came, took you away,
I stood there on a chair and watched you pray.
—“Hospital Vespers”