By Chris Barton
8:30 AM EDT, September 10, 2013
If there's any one thread running through today's pop music, it's the amazing ability for most songs to be about absolutely nothing.
Despite scores of crises around the world, the biggest hits of the summer (i.e. "Get Lucky" and "Blurred Lines") are party-ready, escapist marshmallow fluff. The year's revolving door of package music festivals — events once at least peppered with voter registration and social outreach booths — mostly exist as target marketing efforts and a means of giving music fans the sunny feeling of how wonderful it is to attend a music festival.
At their best, hip-hop and jazz remain most adept at breaking the mold, and the footprints of both genres can be heard on Vijay Iyer's and Mike Ladd's inspiring new album. An ambitious collaboration between one of the most celebrated jazz pianists today in Iyer and poet-MC Ladd, who has worked with a host of underground rap acts including El-P's Company Flow and Saul Williams, "Holding It Down" is the duo's third in a series of unclassifiable blends of music, theater and spoken word that paint a vivid oral history of post-9/11 America.
The first, "In What Language," appeared in 2004 and was built from airport interviews with people of color, and the second, "Still Life with Commentator" from 2007, looked at the 24/7 news cycle. For the third, Iyer and Ladd focus on the enduring effect of the U.S. war effort with Iyer's music and Ladd's lyrics inspired by interviews with Iraq and Afghanistan veterans about their dreams. Most strikingly, the record also includes first-person accounts from writer and Iraq veteran Maurice Decaul and Lynn Hill, who piloted drone missions in Afghanistan from a Las Vegas air base.
"Dream of an Ex-Ranger," inspired by William from Newton, Mass., is a harrowing mini-movie recounting a confrontation in a hotel room lit "partly from the fickle Green Zone street light." Behind Iyer's panicked piano and the claustrophobic churn from cellist Okkyung Lee and guitarist Liberty Ellman, the song builds into something resembling night terror as Ladd asks "So why now, in the dry half-lived room could he see nothing without use of force?" before violence erupts.
Inspired by Mike from Cambridge, the slow-burning "Costume" spirals from childhood Halloween memories juxtaposed with escalating U.S. conflicts, which spur a rebellion in the narrator's Quaker mother. Surrounded by an escalating martial rhythm and Ellman's elastic guitar, Ladd's voice grows more echoed and feverish until his voice explodes with a mother's outrage: "I will not give one son to fight in their wars."
As evocative as Ladd's composite portraits of these remembrances can be, it's Decaul and Hill who hit hardest with their first-person turns. "Maurice Emerson Decaul is not here," he declares in "Derelict Poetry." "That foolish man stayed in Iraq, he likes it there." Surrounded by a fuzz of electronics and an industrial rhythm, Decaul doubles back and declares himself dead many times over, "survived by memories of dreams, a transient sense of self and one derelict manuscript of half-written poetry."
"Tormented Star of Morning" features a lilting R&B chorus from Decaul powered by a rippling drum-and-bass groove, and "Requiem for an Insomniac" features a stormy solo from Iyer built atop a burbling keyboard pulse from Iyer. "Capacity" begins as a repeated verse outlining Hill's necessary disconnection from herself and her missions as Iyer shadows her with a slow-rolling pulse. As the poem finishes, Ladd emerges with questions that lead her into a riveting monologue about trying to sleep at night, haunted by dreams of "A black cloud over me, like Predator, just somebody watching me always."
An exposed nerve on the edge of madness, "Shush" may be one of the most haunting songs of the year. With Decaul repeating, like a mantra, "I've been talking in my sleep again," he conjures muzzle flashes, burning diesel and "sandbag eyes, large like dish plates, scared." As Iyer's flickering piano hurtles behind him, Decaul builds to a matter-of-fact admission so raw it burns: "I prayed to die in Iraq."
If this sounds like a difficult listen, it absolutely is. But it's also an essential one, particularly from the perspective of listeners who, like most of America, have been permitted to keep modern war — and its horrific human cost — at a safe distance. It doesn't sound like jazz, hip-hop or even anyone's summer jam. But like the best of all art, Iyer and Ladd have captured an experience too harrowing for words and given it life, and an unforgettably human one at that.
Vijay Iyer and Mike Ladd
"Holding It Down: The Veterans' Dreams Project"
Four stars (out of four)
Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times