“Beauty is difficult.” So said Ezra Pound. He was not wrong.
But what did he mean? Fairly obviously, he meant that creating beauty demands self-discipline, self-denial. Of course self-discipline and self-denial can be achieved while beauty remains fugitive. Beauty cannot be taken captive simply by self-control. Pound also meant, perhaps less obviously, that living in openness to beauty and in search of it, is difficult. Beauty does not sell itself cheap, even less give itself away. To find it, to take it in, we have to be in order, fit for it. Beauty is difficult–to create and to receive.
I begin here because crucial lines on Jason Slatton’s new album, We are Nighttime Travellers, are these (borrowed from Dylan):
But I feel nothing for their game,/
Where beauty goes unrecognized
Beauty, both (the conditions of) its creation and (the conditions of) its recognition, absorbs Slatton and shapes the album. Slatton sings of a life in which beauty does not go unrecognized, and he sings of the struggles and the rewards of such a life, the task of staying fit for beauty, the task of remaining open to it.
My world is slowly spinning/
Dismantling and then beginning/
Blood shaking through a tired heart
And She Goes On
Remaining capable of beauty—its creation or its reception—means that we have to keep making ourselves new, that we cannot allow our past to enclose us. We have to become practiced beginners; able again and again to dismantle all that cushions the shock of beauty. It can be an exhausting, frightening business—a life of repetitious ‘repentance’ and renewal. Becoming tired of it leads into games in which beauty goes unrecognized—in which it is either absent, or its role is played by some stand-in, some false beauty. Something, anything less demanding. –Plato understood this better than anyone.
This need to start again, to refresh oneself, is registered several times on the album. But it is not a need frigidly to abandon the past, to deny it. No, the goal of Slatton’s personas is to master it, to find a way to understand it and internalize it so that it becomes a living part of them instead of a gathering sediment threatening to entomb them. As they work to be alive, open to beauty, they also become more complicated, more experienced. –How to retain, manage, an increasingly sophisticated naivety? The album records the struggle. It concedes implicitly that there is no perfect achievement of the goal; at best, it is a July possession: we may make it to summer, but there are still stifling days, thunderstorms. We win to lose and win again. Beauty is never done with us; we can never be done with beauty. We tire; it dims. It shines again; we reawaken. So it goes.
The dimming of beauty figures in several songs and in complicated ways.
I’m planting flowers/
In the cold, black dirt/
Just to keep the my last connection alive/
And all these gods I’m praying to/
They bring me everything but you
Did you make it out alive?/
Did you ever find your wings?/
Did you find a place to rest/
In the empty everything?
These mudtrack boots/
Are full of rain and nails/
The dark fills in/
Where the light has failed/
The neon dirt is turning/
Red as blood/
You can see your story/
Written in the mud
These moments do not finish the story, dark and muddy though they are.
Honey let in the air/
Yeah, its cold but we can drift/
All the flowers bloom/
From the light across the room/
We can watch the nighttime lift
The album acknowledges nighttime, reckons time spent in the dark. But, it is more importantly an album that acknowledges and searches for (to quote Pound once more)
A little light, like a rushlight
to lead back to splendour.
The songs of We are Nighttime Travelers are meditatively paced, contemplative. They take root somewhere between the ear and the mind, in a space they grow to fill. The melodies are sweet—very sweet, but muted. The album is a series of small gestures–small gestures freighted with large meanings, like the beckoning hand of a lover. The playing is impressive throughout, sensitive and deliberate. The songcraft is impeccable. Slatton’s vocals do what is necessary and no more: they stand in front of the music but do not preen, never claim more than their due.
The songs unite thematically, as I have suggested. They unite thematically around a lofty ideal. But they do this by keeping ordinary time, by living through and valuing moments—and the details the moments house.
Paint peeling off the walls/
I think about it as it/
Falls around my feet/
A little of this kind of thing/
Goes a long, long way…
It’s the lonely silence in your place/
It’s the empty morning that I face/
It’s the way you cry/
You take me over
I kept you in my book of days/
But you come ringing back again/
Book of Days
These are songs of noticing, of taking notice. And once someone has taken notice of something, anything, there is no telling what he may notice next.
The iceberg drunks/
Are drifting slow and tired/
The silver moon hangs/
On circus wires/
Down here something is about to give/
And the barb-wire stars/
Whisper I might live
To remain capable of beauty is to own our limitations: we have to bear it in our mortality.
Everything rests on fragile bones/
Everything rests on fragile bones
Perhaps, for the gods, beauty reveals itself as neighborly, easy. But for us it is strange, a stranger. It beckons us as it keeps its distance, crooking its finger as it steps backward.
And all these gods I’m praying to/
They bring me everything but you/
Everything but you/
Everything but you
We Are Nighttime Travelers knows that the material is the vehicle of the spiritual. It knows that to be open to beauty is neither to be open to something other than a wife, a child, a song, nor is it to be open to a single characteristic of a wife, a child, a song—at the expense of all the others. It is instead a way of being open to a wife’s, a child’s, a song’s unique and unified way of being beautiful. There is a certain intimacy between a wife and her beauty, a child and her beauty, a song and its beauty. That certain intimacy is essential to beauty—and despite the fact that beauty is lofty, strange, distant, it is also somehow here among us, to be found, if we find it, in our common lives. Everything rests on fragile bones.