When Live appeared in 1991 with "Operation: Spirit," it was like a huge
kick in the face for Christianity, a way for newer generations to express
their anger at a world which preached peace and love but slaughtered its
bretheren without a second thought. "Heard a lot of talk about this Jesus
/ A man of love, a man of strength," Ed Kowalczyk sings, "What he was
may have been beautiful / But the pain is right now and right here."
Both Mental Jewelry and its followup, Throwing Copper, were
works of obsessiveness and intensity, shadows and power. While the former
spoke harsly of today's political and religious agendas, the latter toyed
more with social policy -- seedy waitresses, abortion tragedies,
working-class life and the odd murder -- and sold four million copies.
At first taste, it's hard to discern exactly what Live's working up to
with its latest release, Secret Samadhi. The album's title doesn't
help. The video for its first single, "Lakini's Juice", is full of
scattered imagery: several men and women rolling around in their
underwear, a sleazy old man collecting obelisks of some powdery white
substance. And who is Lakini (or Samadhi, for that matter)? Our Music News
of the World section recently reported that Kowalczyk now insists that
people call him Edward, not Ed. C'mon, isn't Live just getting a
bit too serious to be taken seriously?
Well, maybe. But that doesn't keep Secret Samadhi from being a
great record. Never before has Live displayed such talent, such skill for
songwriting as it does here. In the past Live might have seemed like
Kowalczyk's pet project, but this time its other members shine alongside
him. Chad Taylor's guitar winds through Samadhi like moonlight
through stained glass, uplifting everything it touches. Bassist Patrick
Dalheimer and drummer Chad Gracey deftly hold down the bottom end, giving
Live's sound an ever-headier intensity.
Samadhi opens with "Rattlesnake," a meditation on ennui and
isolation -- Kowalzyck is sure that if he weren't in a band, "I'd be
driving trucks, my dear / I'd be skinnin' hunted deer." The song ushers in
an hour's worth of provocative music as its delicate, musing verses
whalesong guitars build to the tension of its chorus.
In "Lakini's Juice" and "Unsheathed," the band takes twin turns at sexual
and pharamcological excesses, with the demanding chorus of "More wine /
Cuz I got to have it / More skin / Cuz I got to eat it," from "Lakini,"
and the equally embittered "'Free love was just another party for the
hippies to ruin... Free love is a knife through the jugular vein, son" in
"Unsheathed." Both messages are pounded through with Taylor's staccato
riffs; melody and lyric are perfectly wedded here to bring Kowalzyck's
crypticism some clarity.
In other tracks, no amount of musicality can bring light to that
crypticism. In "Insomnia and the Hole in the Universe," for instance,
exactly what is "Angel, don't you have some bagels in my oven?" supposed
to mean? "Turn My Head" is, I suppose, a touching ballad, but it never
gains comprehensibility as its verses careen from sympathetic ode to
lustful plea and back again. It helps, though, that both tunes are nice to
listen to; the former is a bouncy, midtempo singalong and the latter a
string-laden lullaby that'll probably become a huge hit.
Two songs on Samadhi are breathtaking in their passion, both of
them delving to the core of our cultural mythology. "Heropsychodreamer" is
a full-on musical monsoon with thrumming bass and wailing guitar, as
Kowalzyck's pained voice serenades a lost hero: "The subconscious keeps me
here / I fell in love with a balladeer / I saw your tongue, it licked my
heart / They called you queer / Hero / Dreamer." I'm not sure, but I think
he's talking about John Lennon.
"Ghost," on the other hand, brings the myth of creation to modern-day New
Orleans, its vocal breathy through distant, chiming guitar: "Boy loses rib
in New Orleans / He can't help eyeing up the whores... I never needed this
before / I need a woman to help me feel." Other lines give credit to late
mythological lecturer Joseph Campbell: "I'll take the myth, you take the
blood / It's all the same to the world dreamer." With layers of haunted
melody, "Ghost" dismantles the deification of Adam and condemns the lack
of mystery in our modern world.
In the end, it's this message which threads through Samadhi,
touching on pre-millenium tension in "Century" and disrespect for our
world in "Graze," pleading for soul-baring openness in "Freaks" and
awareness in "Merica." The names of deities -- minor and major -- are
called like a mantra in these songs, everyone from Lurch to Henry Miller,
Aldous Huxley to ramana, Lennon to Lakini. Live might have taken on Jesus
in the first round, but now they're calling to question every mystery,
myth and magic that ever trode the earth.
Secret Samadhi will probably upset a lot of Live fans who won't
like their heavier, edgier sound or scattershot lyrics. This is a record
which takes some time to digest, and in the end, listeners may find it
indigestible -- or quite nourishing. "The artist does figure eights,"
Kowalzyck sings in "Graze," "But will it stand the test of time / Or will
it rot / Like the mission that tried too hard?" If Live hasn't pissed off
too many of the Gods above, this may be their most successful album yet.