Between Hope and Nihilism
How does one fight off the pandemic-etc. sads? This year has been a manic parade of pain, despair, isolation, rage, and loss — a colossal mind-bending fever dream coasting at a distressingly languid pace. On balance, 2020 is a singular strain of horror, yet nothing seems to bind yesterday’s events to today’s, or today’s to tomorrow’s. Positivity feels inappropriate, especially when our moods are largely dependent on who we are, what storms we’ve weathered, how we manage our emotions, and how we’re persevering through this infinite dread. In the backdrop of all this impossibly cruel and exacting darkness, where the depression is relentless and the fear is unending and the series of tragedies and un-events pummel our consciousness with callous impunity, the near-inevitable outcome is a volatile swerve between hope and nihilism on any given day. Experiencing the full spectrum of human emotion is both profound and stifling. But that which we allow becomes. We are witnessing a petulant, feckless administration evincing its standard-issue posture of overt and apologetic indifference toward a spiking pandemic and a plummeting economy. We cannot, however, allow ourselves to be submerged by the total influence of negative news. Yes, too little awareness leaves us shamefully adrift, but too much threatens our sanity altogether.
I’m guilty of doom-scrolling and authoring apocalyptic rants and possessing a visceral cynicism as my natural baseline demeanor. Turning away from the grim theatricality of my instinctual perceptions is an ongoing battle, though I’ve meandered closer to a Goldilocks mean between hope and nihilism by soothing my worried mind and fraying soul with some gorgeous-AF artisanal splendor. Recently, the Flaming Lips and Fleet Foxes both dropped records born largely from existential worries and the shadow of death, prophylactics against unadulterated despair, transforming my anxieties into euphoria with towering, wall-of-sound choruses that belie the unease that inspired them. The openhearted manner in which both bands approach these topics imbues them with a sense of beauty, underscoring an oft-overlooked notion: In times of precarity and unease, an oasis of tranquility and equilibrium — however tiny — can exist.
With American Head, the Flaming Lips crafted a hallucinogenic epic that sums up the state of the American Dream in 2020, tackling heavy subject matter like the lure of nostalgia and the longing for escape with a light touch, framing its stories in a magic-realist sunset atmosphere that lends even its gravest tunes an earthbound charm. “What went wrong? / Now all your friends are gone,” frontman Wayne Coyne croons on the album’s majestically melancholy opener, “Will You Return/When You Come Down,” his voice descending through a swirl of bittersweet keys and chimes and backing vox like broadcasts from a distant galaxy. The instrumentals throughout flourish into a hypnotic and vibrant stream-of-conscious 55-minute mid-tempo ballad, with its frenzied, thunderous drums and circling synths and acoustic guitars strummed to a lullabic tempo. Distant vocals and kaleidoscopic refrains burst through like cosmic radio waves, shimmering with sonic touches that capture a melancholic nostalgia.
America is ripe unto rotten with unexamined ritual, inexplicable fuddy legalism, and incautiously canonized icons, and is wholly uninterested in altering any of this because of pompous inertia or glacial, craven conservatism or even simple because-it-has-always-been-thus ridiculousness. The ambient, omnipresent uncertainty of our present has produced a bafflingly crummy set of multiple and near-total systemic failures, and many have retreated to their own quarantine-induced saunter down memory lane to escape this onslaught of terror. This comes from genuine feelings of anger and frustration and a moral rebuke of what we see around us. But any productive catharsis is tinged with a mounting sense of horror and realization that action has to be taken, that things can’t go on as is. Back to normal is a callow fantasy, a Barcalounger projection.
Coyne sings about his old acid-eating pals being shipped off to war or thrown in jail on the crestfallen “Flowers of Neptune 6”; on the somber orchestral centerpiece “Mother I’ve Taken LSD,” his youthful naivete evolves into sorrow as he sings of an addict friend forced into a psych ward and another on life support after a motorcycle crash. While these songs are loosely based on incidents in Coyne’s past, they speak soundly to the country’s current condition, as the album’s title suggests. These sorts of crises — addiction, working-class precarity — are endemic to the American psyche and perpetuate themselves for generations.
Under the immense pressure of rising pseudo-intellectual fascism, stale hierarchies, the dual legacies of centuries-old racism and colonial-era imperialism, and the various glaring contradictions of American exceptionalism and predatory capitalism, our national life first spiderwebbed and then exploded into little phantasmic shards. The pebbled remains of it cannot be readily pieced back together; no edge of the shattered illusion really seems to fit with any other. “Now, I see the sadness in the world,” Coyne sings as strings come in, “I’m sorry I didn’t see it before.” It’s a quip that hits especially hard in 2020, when much of the world is pining to go back to a selective pre-COVID idyll, why having their eyes pried open to the festering social ills and inequalities that it fostered.
As we grow more acutely aware of the systemic breakdown happening all around us, the greatest and bleakest and most singular focus lies in the battle of who we are, both as a collective and individuals. American Head touches on a stark realization. Toxic ideas, specious logic, rose-tinted nostalgia, and ahistorical narratives are the real existential threats; people are just unwitting or eager vessels for them. We are fighting the idea of what it means to be American and a decent human. The scope of our struggle lies not in opposing apparatchiks or these brutal, abstracted moments, but against compounding ignorance and past atrocities crystallizing into downright terminal illnesses.
Meanwhile, Fleet Foxes’s Shore stares into the swirling darkness around 2020 and realizes there is already enough; frontman Robin Pecknold responds with beauty and acceptance and light. Through a tapestry of 15 tracks, the rustic neo-folk/chamber instrumentation and sky-bound harmonies circle around the theme of warding off life’s dissonant harshness with its everyday wonder — or at least finding a momentary balance between them. Off-kilter bits of sonic filigree graft into detailed musings about the pain of letting go during abrupt life transitions, the challenges that come with accepting their presence, reckoning with the myriad impacts they can have on an individual, and learning how to find comfort in facing uncertainty. Pecknold belts, “These last days / Con men controlled my fate” on “Maestranza,” as if their invitations to surrender to self-pity or indolent rage are necessary to embrace a more rich and fulfilling perspective without becoming overly sentimental.
I suppose our momentum comes from the matter and the antimatter clinging off each other. On the one hand, you buy into a basic idealistic premise that people have the self-actualization and the self-interest to transform this clearly fragmenting and decaying world into something more just and egalitarian. You see the sheer number of individuals underserved by this abattoir of exploitation, the immense and preventable suffering brought on by this pandemic and the broader systems that exacerbate it, and the wonderous possibilities for solidarity behind a cause greater than peevish self-interests and banal grievances. Then you take a good hard look at Americans as they currently exist and you see virulent bigotry, room temperature IQ, bloodlust — sure, we have redeemable qualities, but overall, it’s a profoundly uninteresting and boorish group of people. Hordes of non-conscious stimulus-response transmission vectors trapped in cultural currents pushing them toward a spectacle of mindless cruelty and breathtaking entitlements, a sort of let me speak to your manager petty tyranny.
But doubt and fear and uncertainty left unchecked spirals into some form of prolonged nihilism. And nihilism, on its own, is dangerous and persistent, draining you of precisely the restorative nutrients you need to immunize yourself from it: inspiration, foresight, perspective, tenacity, verve. “A Long Way Past the Past” meditates on the process of navigating through this tension of hope and uncertainty and optimism and cynicism through the use of “I” statements; the listener is allowed to place themselves into the journey of the song and subsequently use it as a personal catharsis. A similar sentiment arrives at Shore’s climax, the back half of the propulsive “Quiet Air / Gioia,” where Pecknold exalts, “Oh devil walk by / I never want to die.” Every day overwhelms us with new information about how this already vapid and sullen world is on the brink of irreversible collapse, and we’re left to ponder how one person can make a meaningful difference. It’s a question I constantly ask myself and try to answer, not because I have one, but as an earnest and vulnerable means of fighting the impulse to give up.
Topics like mortality, the heaviness that accompanies change, and the passage of time all lurk in the murkiest corners of the mind and have hit the world with a sad and keen sense of gravity. Each album’s ability to breathe lightness into these dense concerns is nothing short of soul-soothing. Listening to American Head and Shore reminds me to practice stillness in the face of chaos, to detach from or mitigate the amount of bull shit that exists within our lives, to contemplate what’s important on both an individual and societal level, to process the mounting apathy and heartbreak and channel it into a plan to move forward. It’s as Stoic philosopher Epictetus writes:
“The chief task in life is simply this: to identify and separate matters so that I can say clearly to myself which are externals not under my control, and which have to do with the choices I actually control. Where then do I look for good and evil? Not to uncontrollable externals, but within myself to the choices that are my own…”
I understand that this sentiment is being articulated by someone with a fully furnished wood-floor apartment with a fridge full of Pacifcos and speakers blaring indie rock, but I do hope for the sake of my fellow human’s well-being that we forge an understanding that things don’t have to be the way they are. Our present hysteria is not a necessary condition of life or a towering omnipotent force, but an uncanny and arbitrary social order we produce and re-create each sunrise. It’s something we’ve chosen, if only by acquiescence. Even as we drown in absolute banality or feel that our lives are warped by bloated, wobbling drudgery, the last and greatest hope we have is that a present that so poorly serves so many cannot possibly be the future.
Maybe when our dejected, puffy faces glance into a mirror, we see a funhouse refraction of what our lives have become. Individuals, and societies, never change because they randomly reach an enlightening epiphany; they change when they’re forced to, by crisis, by catastrophe, by confronting an unnerving circumstance and understanding it is not a freak occurrence but a stubborn and recursive normal. I have a vague idea of what changes I need to make, what actions we need to undertake, but I specifically know that they will be an enduring struggle, though it won’t be joyless or without meaning or victories. This is after all, as I’m reminded by the Flaming Lips and Fleet Foxes, the first and perhaps most crucial step of regaining control of yourself and of your surroundings: Deciding that the besieged and breaking thing is worth wresting back from nihilism.