Monday, July 16, 2007

Old China

Bob Neuwirth sings the verses on Old China, one of the prettiest songs on Last Day on Earth. Cale sings the chorus. Among the virtues of the album is that it feels like a real collaboration - it's very hard to figure who did what.

Just because it's pretty doesn't mean it isn't dark. It's an elegy for hope from a narrator who has chosen stasis. All the narrator does is talk and hope, and his hopes diminish with his inaction ("I threw that other chance away today") until all that's left to hope for is that time will slip away. The chorus, in the context of the album at large, seems to reference the nuclear age: "Cross your heart and hope to die / it'll happen in the blinking of an eye." (Nuclear apocalypse may have been a little anachronistic in 1994, but not that anachronistic. I was still obsessed with the possibilities in 1999.)

The music is very straightforward: some major key piano arpeggiations (coincidentally - it's a pretty trivial pattern - mimicking Pink Floyd's "If"), some beautiful strings (violin and viola?), and some simple but very piquant slide guitar. There are some tinkling synth-bells on the chorus that haven't aged well, but otherwise I can't complain about anything. I love the tone of the strings as the song ends.

"Sitting here talking 'bout Old China and how old ladies' hair will go to gray." I'm not sure whether it's "old China," i.e. porcelain, or "Old China," the China coming to grips with the rest of the world's existence. I like the ambiguity, but I always think of the period of so much turbulence and promise in the world's oldest civilization, and how gruesomely it came to an end at the hands of Kai-shek, the Japanese, Mao, and the Cultural Revolutionaries. I do not mean to attribute equal culpability to these four scourges, but from each according to his ability. Hoping for a speaking revolution, wishing that the crimes would go away.

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