Wednesday, 11 February 2009

John Frusciante - The Empyrean (2009)

A preface: this entry is, in some respects, going to be pretty personal and, inevitably, pretty long. Most people I know who are really passionate about music have at least one artist for whom their appreciation is so deep-seated and whose music has contributed so much to their personal growth that a careless criticism directed at the artist can feel almost like a personal insult. No matter how strange it can seem to an outsider, I almost feel bad for those who don't understand an appreciation that deep, because they're missing out on something really beautiful: being able to develop, over time, a personal relationship and an incredible emotional connection with a piece of art. For me, that artist is John Frusciante. His solo works have stayed with me long since my early teenage obsession with the Chili Peppers faded. He was the artist that initially motivated me to pick up guitar. Also, importantly, discovering his solo output back then felt like a revelation: it was the first time it really registered with me just how much personal depth and power music could really have, far beyond simple catchy choruses or stoic experimentations. I connected with that depth, and to this day he's been a creative role model for me. His solo records have, at numerous points in my life, provided warmth and consolation even when little else has been able to. Five years after a large amount of my favourite material of his was released, it only makes sense to gather my thoughts on his most recent release, The Empyrean.

Critically evaluating a record like this is difficult for me, since my predisposition to Frusciante's work means that it doesn't feel natural to listen to it with my critical faculty, I'm always so emotionally immersed in it all. As a fully-fledged concept album, it's certainly his most cohesive effort to date by nature. Sonically it's his most impressive effort yet next to Shadows Collide With People, his outstanding 2oo4 synthpop record. There's all sorts of interesting things going on: string quartets, choirs, analogue synthesizers, and lots of strange treatments and effects on the instruments and vocals that really contribute to the texture of the album, giving it a dark psychedelic quality and ensuring that more and more details are picked up on with repeated listening. There are some criticisms that could be levelled at it: it has been remarked by many that the opening 9-minute instrumental 'Before the Beginning', while providing a wonderfully atmospheric introduction to the record, sounds awkwardly similar to Funkadelic's classic psychedelic guitar solo 'Maggot Brain'. As one will inevitably find in the work of a prolific songwriter who writes what are, harmonically, quite simple songs, it does sometimes sound like he's almost recycling melodies. Actually, there's one decidedly deliberate instance of this in the album itself, with the songs 'Enough of Me' and 'One More of Me', but I will address the significance of this later. The second part of Dark/Light can drag on a bit - as interesting as the clash of the raw drum machine with the very orchestrated choir is, it starts grating a couple of minutes into the repetition of the chord sequence, sounding like a half-cooked idea from To Record Only Water For Ten Days. Though as an album this is one of Frusciante's most thought-out and accomplished efforts yet, the songs themselves sometimes don't quite stand up on their own next to his best efforts from the rest of his catalogue (ironically, one of the best songs on the album is a Tim Buckley cover), but they do work in the context of the rest of the album. That's an important thing to bear in mind when listening to this: it is an album that needs to be experienced as a whole to have its proper effect. Another thing about the album is that it's very, very serious in tone. People familiar with Frusciante's work will have no problem with this, as his work has always dealt heavily with spiritual, almost religious concepts, but it does require that the listener is prepared to take it at face value when listening, otherwise the lyrics can come across as quite pompous and bizarre. I mean, it's a concept album of sorts - it's inevitable that it might come across as pretentious to some.

The concept behind The Empyrean, however, is certainly not a bloated Mars Volta-style one (you know, the type involving characters with funny names and foetuses and Ouija boards and all that crap). It is a highly personal "story" that only John Frusciante himself could have written. As far as life stories go, his is pretty intense: joining a band at the age of 18 that goes on become the biggest rock band in the world, facing extreme disillusionment, depression and loss, sinking into several years of heroin-fueled down-and-out hell, only to come out the other side as someone much more enlightened, successful and creative. He's had bigger ups and downs than most of us could dream of having in a lifetime. Essentially, The Empyrean is the bringing together and clarification of themes that have always been present in his work, presenting us with a coherent explanation of his beautiful perspective on life and spirituality. It's all left deliberately open to interpretation, but from John's perspective, there are only two "characters", so to speak, involved in the album: one person who experiences life's ups and downs and goes through a turbulent process of enormous personal growth, eventually coming out at peace with himself and the rest of the world, and the "creative force, which constantly creates and perpetuates existence", which he goes through a process of slowly becoming in harmony with. Anyone unfamiliar with Frusciante's music reading this right now will most likely think he's a rambling pothead. Upon reading his writings and listening to his music, it actually all makes a surprising amount of sense - his approach to spirituality is optimistic, level-headed and philosophical. The album echoes the Zen mantra "this too shall pass" - any given moment in one's life is ephemeral, something that will inevitably give way to the next moment. As such, life inherently contains cycles: it's not an emotional plateau, it constantly ebbs back and forth between good and bad experiences and the most important thing to remember is that the so-called bad experiences are just as important as the good experiences because the ugly gives meaning to the beautiful and provides us with the drive to be creative, which, in Frusciante's mind, is the most important act in life: contributing to your reality. One particular point he makes on his blog really struck me, even more than the rest of it, kind of summing up the album's message:

"Trying and giving up go hand in hand. But it’s trying that deserves the attention of our will. Giving up is just breathing out. Breathing in is the one we need to remember to do. Breathing out naturally follows. The important thing is just to keep breathing. To try and then just go through all that happens, including not trying. And so we hold our breath sometimes. These things aren’t problems. They are just living."

I would go on to explain the concept further but I can't do anywhere near as good a job as Frusciante himself. It just happens that his blog provides a really interesting, eloquent and detailed explanation of the philosophy behind the album, and, if you are at all interested in finding out more about the lyrical message of this album, I recommend you take a look through it at johnfrusciante.com. It's worth it.

The first song on the album that really grabbed me was the cover of Tim Buckley's 'Song to the Siren' - while arguably not an improvement on the original, Frusciante's own arrangement is still spellbinding - beautiful warm synthesisers and a wonderfully tranquil atmosphere backing one of the most heartbreaking love songs ever penned. Two of the three epics on the album ('Unreachable' and 'Central') are particularly stunning, building to brilliantly compelling conclusions, using all sorts of sonic manipulation to provide incredible atmospheres, with Frusciante's trademark guitar playing here being some of the most expressive instrumental work he's ever done. 'Enough of Me' and 'One More of Me' make a very interesting pairing, lyrically representing different points in life and different perspectives - one being despairing, the other full of a renewed sense of energy and purpose. The effect of the way he sings in an unusually low register in the latter is particularly startling, as are the strange screams halfway through and the strings, but it makes for a brilliant listen. Musically, it makes sense that they sound very very similar because, as two sides of the same coin, they sync up (severely trippy stuff!). It kind of embodies the album's concept of life's cycles, of trying and giving up and trying again, over and over in a harmonious process. My personal favourite on the album is, however, its closer: 'After the Ending'. I don't know what it is about it - I guess a combination of the haunting atmosphere, the incredible melodies and, most of all, the lyrics - but it has left me emotionally exhausted and stunned after every listen. The first time I heard it I was walking down the street listening on my iPod and for a minute during the last few moments of the song I was almost stopped in my tracks, momentarily feeling a little dizzy and intoxicated by it all, just about snapped back into reality by the startling ending. The next time I listened I had a lump in my throat. By the third listen through, while reading the lyric sheet on a night when I felt pretty low, I was bawling. Not a lot of songs make me do that. It has already taken its place as one of my favourite songs, perhaps even my favourite song, by my favourite artist. Which says a lot.

As an album, The Empyrean isn't without its little flaws, but it has such an emotional impact on me that criticism seems to miss the point. Like some of Frusciante's other work, it's one of those rare albums that I can listen to at times where things aren't going as hoped and I feel a little lost as to where my life is headed - it takes you outside of your current reality and gives you a vital bit of perspective that helps you rationalise even the worst of times, and for that I think it's an incredibly valuable record. I'm throwing in two of my favourite Frusciante albums, Shadows Collide With People and The Will To Death, to give a little perspective on why I love Frusciante as much as I do. Hopefully they might even have an impact on someone else. Who knows. All I know is that this music is immeasurably important to me.

pain runs through life
pleasures' other side
fear, some say, gives us such long lives
leads us where we drive
time will soon be born
it is starting at the dawn
and the world is moving towards
things like opposites and wars
and one knows to hear birds sing
there was nothing until the beginning
and the water from my eyes
is because i care who dies
although death is transforming
there is nothing after the ending
[everything is eternal - nothingness does not exist - no thing has ever become nothing - and nothing has never become something - what is has always been and will always be]
-John Frusciante; 'After The Ending'

John Frusciante - The Empyrean
John Frusciante - The Will To Death
John Frusciante - Shadows Collide With People

7 comments:

unfire said...

So, my first impression was that it's very good, extremely distinctive, but somehow not that appealing. And it's funny because Frusciante's solo stuff can always be accused of taking itself a bit seriously. But this time round that seems to especially stand, maybe because it is pretty long. I'm not so hot on lyrics so I didn't pay too much attention to the whole concept thing. I need to give it another spin.

I have a bit too much of his stuff to make sense of as a whole. I love "To Record Only Water..." and many other bits of his other records.

But dude, this is way too defensive... Frusciante's a great artist precisely because his explorations aren't tailored to the cynical 00s listener, his work stabs directly at the realm of the pure (and often hits it). Of course he's a rambling pothead, if you choose not to approach his work on its level. I think you rightly point out, such criticisms rather miss the point.

You don't know if he's releasing a biochemistry-related concept album before April do you? Liner notes = dissertation.

wirrow said...

really like the way you write especially the first few paragraphs. i feel connected in that way to radiohead

Nine Inch Nails said...

Dude I loved this entry. I emailed to all my buddies that have the mental capabilities to understand beauty behind Frusicante and his art. He is such an amazing artist its actually unbelievale that he is still alive after what he went through. I guess most people (The Losers Of The World) will only fall in love with John beautiful sound after he passes on. Like all the other great legends such as Jimi Hendrix and Curt Cobain. People should respect are living legends while they still can. Radiohead, Trent Reznor, Trentemoller and so many others thats not getting the freaking respect that they honestly deserve, People (Those who usually dont even understand what the F*** they listening to) are always giving their dumbass opinions on shit saying "i dont like this' and 'i dont like that'. Who gives a flying F*** what they like anyway. They can keep on listening to their 3 min radio edit disposable britney beyonce recycled bullshit. Shame. I feel sorry for them i really do. We should all pray for them. God save their ears and their brains. Or leave them. I guess the world needs more petrol attendants and 7/11 cashers lol sorry if this is too long i couldnt help myself.

Nine Inch Nails said...

Dude I loved this entry. I emailed to all my buddies that have the mental capabilities to understand beauty behind Frusicante and his art. He is such an amazing artist its actually unbelievale that he is still alive after what he went through. I guess most people (The Losers Of The World) will only fall in love with John beautiful sound after he passes on. Like all the other great legends such as Jimi Hendrix and Curt Cobain. People should respect are living legends while they still can. Radiohead, Trent Reznor, Trentemoller and so many others thats not getting the freaking respect that they honestly deserve, People (Those who usually dont even understand what the F*** they listening to) are always giving their dumbass opinions on shit saying "i dont like this' and 'i dont like that'. Who gives a flying F*** what they like anyway. They can keep on listening to their 3 min radio edit disposable britney beyonce recycled bullshit. Shame. I feel sorry for them i really do. We should all pray for them. God save their ears and their brains. Or leave them. I guess the world needs more petrol attendants and 7/11 cashers lol sorry if this is too long i couldnt help myself.

Sam Lynch said...

The Empyrean still in March 2014 is faultless, John has created a faultless album! yet again

Emmanuel said...

You got my respect sir, I feel so connected with the spiritual meaning of this record. I loved your review.
greetings!

Anonymous said...

Well , a very good review , but you have missed the most important idea of the album - John's departing the band ... it is being mentioned in almost every song , while "Central" is talking only of it.