“The past is a grotesque animal,” begins the eponymously titled Of Montreal song; “and in its eyes you see / how completely wrong you can be.” What follows is a beautiful, rich, long composition, one that’s as mesmerizing lyrically as it is musically. Its lyrics might qualify for great poetry on their own, they so precisely describe the human condition.
The older I get the more I see that my own past is not merely a mistake or series of lapses in judgment but more of a whole cloth, a fabric of mistakenness. Having done wrong becomes having been wrong, there’s so much wrongness woven throughout my memory—throughout my self. And if I’m in the midst of a dark, bourbon-enhanced night of the soul, my past comes to life, bares its teeth at me. If it gets close enough to bite, I risk becoming the mistakes I’ve made, losing hope, and “like a dog returning to its vomit” (Proverbs 26) going back to them. It’s a vicious cycle that can remove the promise, the meaning from life, as the next lines of the song indicate:
The sun is out, it melts the snow that fell yesterday—
makes you wonder why it bothered.
The poetic beauty of this Of Montreal song—and the genius of Kevin Barnes, the band’s founder, lyricist and lead singer (basically the whole band)—lies in the way one very specific memory has come to symbolize “the past.” At a Swedish festival, he says, “I fell in love with the first cute girl that I met / who could appreciate Georges Bataille.” Blame his impulsive neediness, his imaginative tendency to see more in the woman than was there, and maybe on both of their parts a tendency towards eroticism (hence the Bataille reference): he had allowed himself to develop a quick, deep attachment. And when he realizes they don’t quite see eye to eye on Bataille’s Story of the Eye, he understands that what he had taken for love was really only half a thing. What comes next is almost a gag reflex:
It’s so embarrassing to need someone like I do you—
How can I explain? I need you here—and not here, too.
Evidence of “how completely wrong you can be”: In no legitimate “fell in love” scenario is the loved one inexplicably both needed and not needed—nor is true love a source of shame. But you know, these connections tend to strike swiftly and with deadly accuracy. Barnes’ imagination becomes his rationalization, too:
I’m flunking out, I’m flunking out, I’m gone, I’m just gone;
but at least I author my own disaster.
Performance breakdown, and I don’t want to hear it.
I’m just not available. Things could be different, but they’re not.
This pattern of attachment and regret-filled detachment, like the “cruelty” in Bataille’s Story of the Eye, is “so predictable,” says Barnes. He recognizes he’s become a “perihelion” to her—a point of closest orbit—and muses, “sometimes I wonder if you’re mythologizing me like I do you.” Then he adds a damning confession: “We want our film to be beautiful, not realistic.”
Yet still—still—he swoons, “You’ve lived so brightly, you’ve altered everything” and in the end turns back to indulgence, profound and seemingly indefatigable:
I’m so touched by your goodness,
You make me feel so criminal—
How do you keep it together?
I’m all, all unraveled.
But you know, no matter where we are,
we’re always touching by underground wires.
Herein lies the immense appeal of this song, as if twelve minutes of glam rock/electronic pop perfection weren’t enough. We want to believe in a connection that always holds, no matter where we go, no matter what we do. It’s not just sexual or erotic, though it might begin that way. It’s a desire for spiritual presence, a need to be “touched by … goodness.” It’s a need for blessing. This is why wallowing in a lost past or reveling in the pain of an abortive romantic attachment makes us feel good. It’s like candy for the soul. “None of our secrets are physical now,” concludes Barnes, further emphasizing the transformation of random “cute girl” to goddess, object of worship.
My theory is that Barnes’ desire is a desire for God. Compare the song’s conclusion to Psalm 139: “You discern my thoughts from afar” writes David; “Where shall I go from your Spirit? / Or where shall I flee from your presence?” David wanted the same thing, to be loved in an inescapable way, always touching by underground wires. David knew this desire in a Godward sense, but earlier in his life he also had known it in its shadow sense. He, too, had fallen in love with a cute girl that he saw bathing on a nearby rooftop (2 Samuel 11) and chose beauty over the reality that she was married to one of his most faithful warriors. I’m sure that when her husband was sleeping on his doorstep, David felt the “need you here / and not here too” anxiety Barnes expresses in “The Past Is a Grotesque Animal.” David was looking for the same thing, discovered destructively in Bathsheba’s beauty and eventually known more dependably in God’s love.
We all want to be known, loved—given. Especially in a culture of ephemeral electronic communications and multiplying forms of social networking, we’re desperate for permanence. Instead we’re finding replicated versions of ourselves, mini-myths constructed around our own avatars, shrines of self-indulgence that look like other people. What we tend to forget is that the people we’re mythologizing actually are other people, children of parents, members of communities. Remember that although Barnes’ song spins into a kind of self-flagellating love-candy even the Cure never dreamed of, the whole song is submitted in evidence of “how completely wrong you can be.”
I’d revise that, come to think of it. “The Past Is a Grotesque Animal” demonstrates how partly wrong you can be. It’s right to desire deep connection, to be loved by someone who’s “lived so brightly [they’ve] altered everything.” Everything needs to be altered in my own dark, memory-filled heart. Still, I’m not sure how to soldier through without a splash of bourbon now and then.