A part of me knows the foolishness of categorization, the superficiality of it all. We impose categories to create order, or for the sake of comparison, but we all know, that when we say x artist is similar to y artist we do both a disservice on some deep level. (The comparison of the Tallest Man on Earth to Dylan is both truly fitting, but plainly silly for too many reasons to enumerate here.) We fail as writers when we fall back on the need to contextualize, because contextualization, though true, always saps an artist of their singularity. But we cannot help ourselves. Our minds naturally create connections, or build compare contrast charts in our heads.
Not that any of this matters, per se, but I find it interesting because so many of our cultural critics rely on this tool, contextualization, or comparison when evaluating anything. Rarely do we use our language to try to overcome the boundaries of language, and who can blame them? Regardless all of this abstract wanderings, these ideas serve as an unnecessarily elaborate way of saying that in no way do I actually think that Alex Schaaf of Yellow Ostrich and Leonard Cohen belong in any of the same categories. However, I do find it interesting to think about these two talents, both hitting separate peaks at the opposite ends of their career at similar times. Leonard Cohen, rightfully so, needs less of an introduction, so allow me to introduce to you the prolific and talented Alex Schaaf. Native of Wisconsin, Schaaf started his musical career in the band Chairs and in his room with a bunch of machines, it seems. Though many lament the Internet for its proliferation of information, almost creating a storm of information that we need to sift through day in and day out, where websites solely work through winnowing information for other people, this overflow also allows us to track each miniscule step of an artist, which in the case of Schaaf is a fascinating endeavor to experience. Though clearly far from achieving anything in the way of his full potential, Schaaf has grown and evolved from a precociously talented teenager, capable of crafting gorgeous layers of song with just his voice, a guitar, and some sound machines, into a poetic writer of fully realized studio songs, still with his signature vocal loops, but now with a band to collaborate with. His first single off his upcoming album Strange Land, Marathon Runner serves as a great evidence of his place as an artist, as does Cohen’s first song of his new album, Old Ideas, Going home. Here are the lyrics and music to both. First, Marathon Runner, then Going Home.
When I was a boy of seventeen, I know it's mean, but I I told my friend to give up on her dreams, she hated me, but I I knew that dreams were for the best of us, not for the rest of us, and I I didn't want to share with anyone
I need a way to sing the greatest dance, and make them laugh,
I could win the wars, or lose the battles too, whichever's true
I can live in other people's lives -
I CAN'T STOP PUTTING ON OTHER PEOPLE'S CLOTHES
I love them 'til I leave
I am a marathon runner and my legs are sore and I'm anxious to see what I'm running for I am a hot air balloon on a sailboat I would make this my home if I'd learned to float
So take my treasures, take my earthly life, I'll try to cry,
I will live without the things I love the best
So hold them to your chest
I will lose my faces, lose my stolen wigs, the heads of kings
I will run until I know what to believe
I love to speak with Leonard
He’s a sportsman and a shepherd
He’s a lazy bastard
Living in a suit
But he does say what I tell him
Even though it isn’t welcome
He will never have the freedom
He will speak these words of wisdom
Like a sage, a man of vision
Though he knows he’s really nothing
But the brief elaboration of a tube
Without my sorrow
To where it’s better
Without my burden
Behind the curtain
Without the costume
That I wore
He wants to write a love song
An anthem of forgiving
A manual for living with defeat
A cry above the suffering
A sacrifice recovering
But that isn’t what I want him to complete
I want to make him certain
That he doesn’t have a burden
That he doesn’t need a vision
That he only has permission
To do my instant bidding
That is to SAY what I have told him
In a sense, I find it fascinating, that though at the opposite spectrum of their careers, both speak about movement, about home, about finding a place, but as expected, one speaks in a playful style of irony, riddles, mysteries, and a resigned sense of accomplishment that only the wisdom of years can bestow, (True, even the Cohen of 17 wrote gnomic poetry, but sometimes it still feels precocious or unearned, incommensurate to his life experience, ) while the younger artist: hungry, a bit desperate, restless, writes and sings without glibness, with a genuine desire to find his place, to run, despite the aches and pains, to finally find something to actually run for. In both we find hope, but in the Marathon Runner, we find the hope of youth, seeing a world exploding with the potential of choice while in Going home, we find the hope of concrete expectations, and the wisdom of acceptance. Stylistically, they are both poems to the self, meditations on persona that double as conversations.
The music reinforces the different stages of the artists self exploration: whereas Marathon runner builds in speed, running itself into meaning, Going home walks slowly, carefully observing each step, each sound, even the silence permeating between the sounds. The pacing of each cannot partake of more diametrically opposed choices. Schaaf’s song runs through the words, through its measures, while Cohen speaks sparsely, slowly, with time to waste, to burn.
In this vein, both songs strike a deeply religious note, though the religiosity of post-modernism in which the search takes the place of the destination. Cohen, a continual, itinerant explorer, rehashes the experiences of a lifetime, but still seeks to create, “a love song, an anthem of forgiving, a manual for living with defeat, a cry above the suffering, a sacrifice recovering.” Notice how Cohen, carefully undermines our expectation with each turn of phrase. For Cohen, the bard of the complexities of love to desire to write a love song, well I can’t help but chuckle. Furthermore, in the context of the other phrases, “a love song” take on a different meaning. Each phrase strikes a note of mystery, of reaching beyond what we think normal or natural. We rarely associate anthems with forgiveness, or cries above suffering, or a manual of living that focuses on defeat, but with the hindsight of wisdom they earn their coherence. These goals are the goals of experience, not of youth. Schaaf, considerably less subtle in his poetry, specifically in his imagery (Marathon runner, though an appropriate metaphor is not what one would call a fertile metaphor, or even a very new one, but it strikes the exact tone of running for no real purpose, but with an ostensible end in sight,) loses none of his power in his explicitness. In fact, in his genuineness, lies his power, because in a world of either easy cynicism (sorry, MGMT) or maudlin sentimentality (duh Coldplay and Mumford and Sons…) creating a genuine statement presents an almost harder challenge than a cryptic one. What then, could strike us as more genuine than the simple truth of, “I will run until I know what to believe.”
Schaaf describes a struggle with perhaps one of the foundational issues of our generation: the tension between a deep-seated desire for personal achievement with the loftier, but more elusive desire to be a good person, or the thin line between meaning and the absurd. The relationship between self and other plays a central role in both of these songs as they explore the complex aspects of an artist's role and life in society.
Yet, despite all this heaviness, they both display a healthy sense of sense-awareness and playfulness. Cohen undermines his persona of a visionary guide or prophet through his playful dialogue with his lazy bastard self, while Schaaf undercuts his desire for purpose and meaning in his realization of the selfishness of such a pursuit.
In the end, after we clear away this attempt at analysis, when it comes down to it I find it comforting for the new guard picking up the torch of these universal issues with a contemporary tinge, and even more comforting, both of these artists display no desire to stop finding out what they are running for, and for that, I feel gratitude.