by Sam Buntz
I’ve never heard anyone describe the kind of music created by The War on Drugs, Strand of Oaks, or Kurt Vile as, specifically, a “Philly Sound” or the “Philly Sound” or anything like that—though I have read articles in which all three of those bands/artists have been compared to one another. (Technically, the classic “Philly Sound” is probably Philadelphia Soul, anyway—but we’re talking about what’s happening in the Now). That being the case, maybe it’s time to finally draw some lines and say what’s what? The boundaries between where one “sound” ends and where another begins have always been pretty arbitrary—like the way far-flung cultures divide the spectrum of visible color differently (one person’s blue is another person’s green). Yet, let’s take a shot at defining the sound, anyway, despite all that.
These three groups/artists all strike me as being part of “Cosmic American Music”—as the alternative country legend Gram Parsons named it. There’s a sense of expansion—canyons and plains implicit in the soaring synths and delay-heavy, reverb-heavy guitar, the visions of early pioneers (which is funny, considering the music is emanating from the East Coast)—along with a sense of smallness, of being a tiny person lost in a swirling, vast Domain. Both these feelings strike at the emotional core of so many Americans’ lives. Walt Whitman, probably the greatest American poet (along with Emily Dickinson), expressed the darker mood—the sense of smallness or contraction—writing in “As I Ebb’d with the Ocean of Life”:
“Aware now that amid all that blab whose echoes recoil upon me I have not once had the least idea who or what I am,
But that before all my arrogant poems the real Me stands yet untouch’d, untold, altogether unreach’d,
Withdrawn far, mocking me with mock-congratulatory signs and bows,
With peals of distant ironical laughter at every word I have written,
Pointing in silence to these songs, and then to the sand beneath.”
Although these Philly artists are using the idiom of rock, they all get what Whitman’s talking about. “There’s just a stranger living in me,” sings Adam Granduciel in The War on Drugs’ “Eyes to the Wind”—expressing the same feeling of desperate self-separation as Whitman, searching and failing to find his “real Me.” But it’s really the feeling-tone of the music, the guitar and synth-based soundscapes that convey this experience: the lyrics hint at it, but you can’t really find it without absorbing the sound.
In the liner notes for a re-release of The Last Waltz, Harold Bloom praised The Band and Bob Dylan for capturing a certain strain of “spiritual loneliness” in American music. The loneliness is “spiritual” because it’s creative—you’re isolated somewhere out in the vast terrain of America, yet despite all this, you sense massive creative potentialities hidden in your lonely self, which you then convert into musical or poetic realities. These Philly groups definitely access the same vein of “spiritual loneliness” (just read about the recording process for Strand of Oaks’ Heal and The War on Drugs’ Lost in the Dream—both albums emerged from intense periods of solitude and creative effort), and Dylan fans like Granduciel and Vile would probably enjoy the comparison. Strand of Oaks’ Timothy Showalter (who really is the band) belts out, “I was lonely / I was having fun” as a pre-chorus on “Goshen ’97.” Specifically, he’s having fun making music, and the loneliness propels that creative activity. You need to fill that inner emptiness up—just like the pioneers, filling empty deserts and plains (except that those weren’t, strictly speaking, empty: there were actually Native Americans there—though that’s an issue or five away from the subject of this article, obviously). Although those lyrics aren’t, as written, poetry, they take on the quality of poetry when they become transfigured by the music in which they find themselves embedded.
None of these bands have lyrics that would transfer really well to the page—as is true in the vast majority of cases (Dylan’s always been the big exception to this rule, to some degree). Their words are crafted to work with music, not with the silent rhythm of a reader’s mind. But they’re still interesting: Granduciel and Vile’s lyrics capture the hum of thoughts drifting casually through a tired or distracted brain, and include the kind of things you tend to hear your subconscious muttering when you tune into it. Here’s Vile: “You could say I been most all around / But honey I ain’t goin nowhere / Don’t worry bout a thing / It’s only dying / I live along a straight line / Nothing comes to mind.” So, yeah… Whatever that meant. And here’s Granduciel, in a somewhat more coherent mode: “I come to my soul / Walking in the downtown / Talk to my soul / They won’t get lost inside again / On my way / I can see it the darkness coming my way / Well we’re here / Don’t get lost inside /Yeah, you won’t get lost inside at all…” It’s a little like Samuel Beckett… and it makes sense: it’s the same sort of conversation-with-your-own-soul that Whitman used to have, part of his search for the “real Me” or mystic “Me, Myself”. But it doesn’t really become art until it fits into a musical context. (It’d be wrong not to note that.)
A great album to compare with the work of these Philly bands is The Joshua Tree (Showalter’s on record as being a U2 fan; and I’d be surprised if Granduciel and Vile were going to slag off The Edge). Tracks like “In God’s Country” and “Where the Streets Have No Name” definitely get at that delay-laden, American Sonic Expanse—despite having been composed by non-Americans, of course. U2 was consciously trying to explore America with that album, and The War on Drugs, Vile, and Showalter all testify to the accuracy of U2’s musical observations—they’re the denizens of the America U2 explored back in the ’80s, even though they’re living in Philly and not halfway between Texas and a mysterious desert Nowhere. They inhabit the same psychological and spiritual landscape… The Irishmen staring out across the Western Shore were right—they had the perfect vantage point from which to contemplate (what it should be fair to call, without a hint of corniness or irony) the American Spirit.
But, as indicated in some of the above, life in this soundscape America isn’t just a lonely drag. There’s a spiritual bigness that goes along with the feeling of smallness. Whitman could go from the despair of “As I Ebb’d with the Ocean of Life” to the triumphant, cosmic expansion of “Song of Myself”: “I depart as air, I shake my white locks at the runaway sun, / I effuse my flesh in eddies, and drift it in lacy jags.” Whitman is mystically becoming everything—and, listening to some of these albums, you get the sense that that could happen, considering the guitars’ capacity to evoke really large spaces. These new Philly sounds are an unexpected blessing in these dark days, and the fact that an ancient, storied state like Pennsylvania still has the juice—and can still launch us, musically, into this kind of psycho-spiritual headspace—is enough to cheer at least one former resident.