Backtrack: WU LYF Go Tell Fire To The Mountain
Mary Karr’s Cherry is a memoir about becoming a teenager. As the book progresses and she gets older, she finds herself in that position that all teenagers find themselves in at one point or another: she’s responsible for her actions, but outside of them as well, the things she does are not her, but she’s doing them so they are. It’s a beautiful way of writing about uncontrollable change. Toward the end of the book, she’s attending a sort of bizarre spiritual retreat and is not comfortable with it. She writes:
“As an adult, it will stun you that most bizarre encounters with virtual strangers from this period could have ended by your simply leaving, walking away…”
Here, Karr completely decimates the concept of being trapped in the life you have. Illustrating that to change (though not always for the better) all you have to do is separate yourself.
The germs of this idea come during our teenage years, but they so rarely (this time probably for the better) manifest in any tangible way. The reason I bring all this up, is that last week as I was writing about No Age’s Weirdo Rippers, an album that seems to provide an antidote for feeling trapped (or, at least, a temporary escape), I started thinking about how, as a teenager everything is so huge. So world ending. We are all basically just balls of greasy hormones bouncing off all these walls we just figured out were even there. We’re trapped in our own stupid prisons, making idiotic mistakes that are probably closer to escape attempts than actual “bad” decisions. These are the years that we figure out we’re becoming defined people and we’re not ready to be them. We encounter shifty characters in parks, drug dealers, 13-year-olds that have somehow already been to rehab, car thieves and already lost geniuses. We follow complete strangers into weird situations because of boredom. We pick up mostly smoked cigarettes from ashtrays and smoke them, or we make fun of the people that do. It never occurs to us that we don’t want to know them, or that we absolutely want to know them, or that we are them. Being a kid is still too close.
In that sense Manchester’s WU LYF are the soundtrack to those years of small apocalyptic moments. Their one album (they broke up not long after its release, though frontman Ellery James Roberts has lately been carrying the torch with his solo music) Go Tell Fire To The Mountain sounds like the last thing to be recorded before the end of the world, it’s filled with elliptical references to friendship (“We Bros”) and plenty of references to fire. Riffs appear as slight variations of themselves, organs sound somber and heavy and the drums crack like thunder under Roberts’ vocals, which are ragged and often unintelligible, but somehow always joyful too.
Being a teenager means that your world is tiny. Everything is new, but you have to pretend it isn’t. A breakup is the end of the world until it’s not anymore. Every idea you have is brilliant, every piece of art you make is the best piece of art you’ve made yet. WU LYF tap into this by making a record that acts as a statement piece. The band rarely conducted interviews, seemed to never perform with shirts on and before they’d even released any music, they had a rabid following breathlessly anticipating every move they made.
Their greatest trick, in a sense, was making an album that wasn’t actually weird, wasn’t hard to listen to and dealt with direct emotional sentiment in a visceral way. At the time, it felt like everyone who cared was always trying to peer behind the curtain of WU LYF, but maybe there just wasn’t anything back there.
I don’t mean to say their music is empty. It’s not. “We Bros” tapped into a particular kind of masculine camaraderie so well that every time I listen to it, it makes me examine every friendship I have from a new angle. The one-two punch of “Dirt” followed by “Concrete Gold” is all orange hues and crashing cymbals. There are points in “Concrete Gold” where the music sounds thick enough to roll around in your mouth.
What I mean is that maybe, despite all the mystery and build up and subsequent flame out, Go Tell Fire To The Mountain is a pop album unafraid to be a pop album. Its motives are pure. Sometimes, when you’re a teenager, you’re nice just to be nice, or you’re a huge asshole just because it’s what you feel like being. It’s not a sustainable thing, and as you get older, life takes on so much more. Go Tell Fire To The Mountain is what it is, until the moment it becomes complicated enough to be something else.