Nation of Ulysses - Plays Pretty For Baby
or better or worse, we here at Stylus, in all of our autocratic consumer-crit greed, are slaves to timeliness. A record over six months old is often discarded, deemed too old for publication, a relic in the internet age. That's why each week at Stylus, one writer takes a look at an album with the benefit of time. Whether it has been unjustly ignored, unfairly lauded, or misunderstood in some fundamental way, we aim with On Second Thought to provide a fresh look at albums that need it.
What does a bestselling author do, upon successful completion of a manuscript? In the case of John Updike, he might go hit a few golf balls; Hunter S. Thompson’s considerably less orthodox idea of a good time might have once been to ride a motorcycle up the coast of Big Sur while ripped to the gills on speed (of the pharmaceutical variety, that is). But even if Dennis Cooper, after finishing his next book, decides to cease with the downright shocking amount of politesse we’ve seen him display in interviews and reveal that his house’s basement is not a wine cellar or depot of neo-realist paintings but indeed the torture chamber so many have fancifully imagined, it seems unlikely that he could top Yukio Mishima for pure leaving-his-audience-aghast value. Mishima was Japan’s most popular author at the time he, after typing out the last page of The Decay of the Angel (the last of four books detailing a twisted saga that includes sadism, reincarnation, and a whole lot else), gathered together a squad of trained warriors and kidnapped one of Japan’s top-ranking generals, then addressed a stunned crowd from a balcony and committed ritual suicide.
Few could fathom Mishima’s reason for doing so, though he, a politically staunch neo-conservative, was known to have frowned on his nation’s growing disregard for its emperor, as well as its postwar foreign policy. The prevailing mood was one of sheer disbelief: could it really have been that this author had been serious about all the bizarre themes his work encompassed? Mishima’s often lurid novels (see The Sailor Who Fell From Grace With The Sea, which contains one of the most chilling scenes of animal cruelty ever put on paper) nonetheless demonstrated an undeniable intelligence and perceptiveness regarding human nature; it seemed unlikely that he could prove capable of the monstrous actions of his characters. Albert Camus, after all, never shot anyone on a beach.
The intentional fallacy comes into play here, when assessing artists and who we think they might be in relation to their art. “What’s any artist,” asks a character in William Gaddis’ novel of art (and cultural) forgery, The Recognitions, “but the dregs of his work?” Though we can assume inspiration and sincerity come into play when an artist engages in the act of creation, there’s always a chance they might not be as serious about this sort of thing as they appear. How many punk singers, after all, have made more than a perfunctory effort to shut down, to destroy, the governments they’ve lyrically railed against? Maybe, we often think, when hearing a particularly stirring but also by definition ridiculous couplet, they’re kidding. Or maybe they’re serious. Or maybe, in the case of the Nation of Ulysses, some of both.
The Nation of Ulysses – pioneers of post-hardcore noise-rock (and, to a lesser [or maybe greater] extent, fashion-statement rock) led by a pre-Make-Up Ian Svenonious – are famous for their delirious liner notes, littered with quotes and semiotic signposts and pretty hard to believe to be anything but sheer self-parody, albeit a brilliant one. Their politics and philosophy have been addressed at great length elsewhere; taken at face value, it may come as a celebration of pretense, like the Make-Up’s fetishism of soul (or maybe it’s a fetishism of the mod era’s fetishism of soul; either way, it’s a great deal more complex than a bunch of trust-fund kids dressing up in tractor company T-shirts, and thusly can’t be dismissed as such. For more on this, written a lot better than I could hope to, see Travis Morrison’s essay on Ulysses/The Make-Up in issue #6 of Held Like Sound). Make of all this what you will.
However, it’s pretty much incontrovertible to me that Ulysses were a pretty awe-inspiring band. They sound, in short, like a loopier and less diffuse Fugazi – maybe a Fugazi going through the fuck-all adolescent rampage we never witnessed on record – with a healthy dollop of the garage-rock and free-jazz-fans-who-can’t-hope-to-play-free-jazz-yet-don’t-care aesthetic tossed into the fray. Though an excellent vocalist in The Make-Up, Svenonious’ raspy vocalizing gains power in the context of out-of-control feedback and fractured guitar heroics; his frenzied yet petulant wail is particularly thrilling on “A Comment On Ritual” (also a standout track for its frenzied axe breaks) and “Last Train To Cool.” Though the club-band ersatz-jazziness of “N.O.U. Future Vision Hypothesis” is a bit out-of-place here, the band does have good sense enough to follow it up with the hysterical squall of “50,000 Watts of Goodwill,” a song which seems to announce its intent to grab the mantle from Sonic Youth. “The Kingdom of Heaven Must Be Taken By Storm,” another basher, is subtly melodic enough to emerge as more than abrasion for its own rowdy sake, however, as is a good deal more of the album than is usually par for the course.
And it’s just this willingness to plasticize the fast, noisy song into different forms that lets us think of the Nation of Ulysses, ten years later, as far ahead of their time rather than – as I can’t help but feel is true of many bands making music right now – confined to it.
By: Chris Smith
Published on: 2003-09-01