October 7, 2022

Godspeed You! Black Emperor – Yanqui U.X.O. (Constellation Records)

There’s a case to be made for the re-adoption of the classical forms of titling (as in ‘Opus 59 No.1’), especially when confronted with music that comes freighted with as much intellectual ballast as this. How different would the experience of listening to this latest album from the Montreal nine-piece be if it were called, say, “Einstein on the Beach”, and each track simply numbered?

‘yanqui u.x.o.’ comes laden with righteousness. It’s impossible not to bring to the listening the knowledge that u.x.o. stands for ‘unexploded ordnance’, that the hand-drawn chart on the sleeve links every major record label with the arms industry either directly or through their investment portfolio, or that the title of the first track (09-15-00) represents the date on which Ariel Sharon provoked the second, current Palestinian intifada. It’s cool that the collective is so upfront about its anti-capitalist, anti-war stance – o that there were more like them! – but is that position really represented in the music? Does sloganeering in the artwork turn standalone music into agitprop? Hmm. At a push, you can hear anger here, but the overall emotional trajectory is more a kind of sad, desultory fatalism. Epic fatalism. Sublime, Dostoyevskian fatalism. But not, I think, a critique of realpolitik.

What’s distinctive about these five lengthy tracks is the sheer scale of the sonic architecture they invoke – between the cramped one-room sparseness of a violin and a chime at one end and the sheer awesomeness of that cathedral wall of sound built up from guitars and percussion and strings and god knows what else at the other. The space between these extremes is a kind of historic plaza littered both with disillusion and endless allusion (notably to a haunting folk-hybrid of Iroquois drumming, Yiddish wedding band combos, and Weill-like cabaret riffs), but illuminated overall by a passionate, fiery, unquenchable optimism – the kind that takes no prisoners.

Unlike some post-rock, godspeed you!’s music is not just a set of arid cerebral exercises – it’s visceral, too, and almost lyrical at times – there are even a few memorable melodies (!) – although the lyricism will always ultimately be concealed behind the trademark tone-guerilla-mask. Don’t be intimidated, though – they’re careless guides, and their minds might be on other things, but the scenery’s breathtaking.