1. A Folky Capital-‘B’ Ballad

Episode 002
“A WILD HOLY BAND”

Sean Conner in correspondence with Timothy Aames

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To begin, a footnote (reference as often as needed). Complete liner notes for the album this song appeared on can be found here. Finally, while we can’t find anywhere where you can listen to “A Wild Holy Band” for free, a very worthwhile purchase can be made here.

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Tim

Don’t get the wrong idea. I’m not up late with Mike Scott’s “A Wild Holy Band” on repeat while juggling two word documents on my laptop screen for you. Rather, if I stay up late enough, I can get myself out of running in the morning. And let this be taken down as revelation number one: ten-minute songs and their subsequent analysis are for the sober what ruffle-shirted jazz musicians are for the buzzing: they’re gonna keep you up all night. Or so I’ve heard.

Enough preface, let’s talk about the song. “A Wild Holy Band” is sprawling, epic in the Greek sense, a folky capital-‘b’ Ballad. What struck me on initial listens was the simplicity of cadence, scope of the narrative, and Scott’s diction. It felt so natural I attempted to map out poetic schemes, counting syllables and stresses to determine whether each verse wasn’t actually a Shakespearian sonnet in disguise. This anal finger tapping revealed nothing, but I couldn’t escape the classic, yet effortless execution of the song. “A Wild Holy Band” feels natural, as though I’ve been listening to it for years, and yet, I haven’t. It has a play count of six on my iTunes. Granted, in the case of a ten minutes song, that’s an hour…

This idea of the ‘classic’ sound is interesting to me, and I’m going to take a few pot shots and say it has something to do with some of the rather explicit traditions “A Wild Holy Band” is coming out of. Most apparent is this vibe of the Greek Epic. In that tradition, Scott opens up the song invoking the muse:

“I was longing to be moved / I was ready to be humbled / by the words that you had written / by the syllables you had mumbled.”

Left at this “A Wild Holy Band” is a bland replication of the model. But the narrator has some awareness of this ‘you’ (how to read ‘you’ is something I’ll leave till later), the lines “I knew I was the victim / of a beautiful deception” giving him some cogent agency in what is in the genre typically left to the Gods.

This seems especially important as a listener. Greek myths functioned in the prescriptive, an anecdote or parable explaining the world in some way. Thank Demeter for winter, Helios for the sun, etc. But the knowledge our narrator hopes to obtain is wrapped up in this “beautiful deception.” By the song’s end we have nothing tangible. Our narrator’s quest dissolves in his own inability:

“I’m trying to take a stance / and rise above my contradictions / But I’m just a bunch of words in packs / most of those are fictions.”

If Scott had ended the song with these lines, it would have both violated the tradition of the epic to convey some nugget of insight, but worse, been a damn frustrating song, a postmodern eye roller hooking the listener with rather banal guitar, piano, and drum progressions. However, while the verse narrative leaves our narrator without anything, our chorus has been giving us hints of this elusive ‘point’ all along:

Keep the river on your right
And the highway at your shoulder
And the front line in your sights
Pioneer
Keep your eye on the road
Remember what you told her
This is all in code
My dear

Do you ever project yourself into some fantastic world, like daydreaming but with intense earnestness? That’s what these lines do to me:

I’m standing on the cracked pavement of some abandoned highway listening to this croon saying, “Remember what you told her? ‘This is all in code my dear.’” I’m trying to remember actually saying those words to this girl, my lips, sticky and swollen, trying to mouth the syllables. And then I’m stuck trying to figure out if this isn’t actually a question, but some commandment. “Remember,” the croon advises, but then casts it all over with the manic, “This is all in code, my dear.” And I’m left on tarmac miles away from the truth.

This ambiguity gives “A Wild Holy Band” what most Greek myths lacked: the ability to interact with the song, to interface with it, to come away without explicit answers but with our brains and hearts seeking them.

That’s it for tonight from me. Writing this though, I realized how much more I want to consider. The mysterious female, the allusions to Kerouac and Irish lore, Scott’s line-by-line poetics (the elegance and delivery of “Venus in a V-neck sweater” made me shudder), the anachronistic imagery, and more.

Sean

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2. Found Pages, Scrap Paper, Light

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