David Fleming
It's All Academic   www.davidflemingsite.com   
Day 111: The New Pornographers (We End Up Together)

August 15, 2020

The New Pornographers remind me of Grand Rapids, Michigan.  Somehow that seems perfect. 

First off, I was introduced to them by my boss at Davenport University, headquartered in Grand Rapids, right around the time he retired as Provost (2007). Tom had impeccable musical tastes, and so he introduced me to many really cool current bands at the time: The New Pornographers, Sigur Ros, Frightened Rabbit, and My Morning Jacket to name a few.

Second, during my very brief period of time living in GR (3+ years), The New Pornographers were scheduled to play at Calvin College.  By September of that year (2010), the show had been cancelled because too many residents were offended by the band's name. Calvin College even issued an embarrassing apology . . . to fans of the band. Even just the opening statement of the press release bore the laborious weight of ridiculous copy: "the irony of the band's name was impossible to explain to many. The band's name, to some, is associated with pornography. Consequently, Calvin, to some, was mistakenly associated with pornography. Neither the college nor the band endorses pornography."1  Quite the statement, isn't it?  I have to admit I was not surprised by the cancellation. I would have been surprised if any of the critics had listened to the band's songs to find out if there was a pornographic undercurrent.

Thirdly, after being turned on to the band's Challengers by my boss, I waited anxiously for the release of their next CD, Together. I had the early May 2010 release date circled on my calendar. When it was released the first Monday of May 2010, I had lots of time to listen to it, having just resigned my position.  Hearing any song from the CD now reminds me of that time's painful transitions, especially as the short-lived time in a community that didn't openly accept people who had come from the Detroit area, was going to come to an end.

If you've ever abruptly resigned a position (or hell maybe this fits if you have been fired, not that I would ever know), you realize then how much anxiety you have about how it will all end up. After all, it's not just a position, it's a social world you have populated and that has defined you for sometimes many years. There's a lot more potential loss than a paycheck. My situation was what it was, and I had to keep the faith that everything would turn out fine. So as I devoured Together, its final track, "We End Up Together" sounded like a testament to what I was leaving behind and what I faced ahead.

Part of the strains of job loss is worrying about perceptions of your loved ones. "When you gonna do some damage, little brother," asks A.C. Newman as the song opens with lightly strummed guitar and some synthesizer strains, "now that your life is half over, if you're lucky?" I had just turned 48, and am sure my parents, sisters, wife, son and others wondered what damage I had done. That second part of the line, life half over, almost seemed optimistic. When Newman goes on to sing, supported by Neko Case's and Kathryn Calder's exquisite background vocals, "I'm for damage, sweet damage," it certainly sounded like a call to action. When the verse finishes with "oh damage," intrusive cellos sweeping in, countered by a sharp guitar chord, and a more evocative synthesizer sequence, it feels like a siren's call to lure the ships onto the rocks.

As is typical for New Pornographers' songs, there are long stretches lyrically in "We End Up Together" that aren't really clear.  For all the pinheads that drove them out of Grand Rapids before they even got there, you'd have to be looking really hard to make sense of most of the lines, let alone identify them as offensive.  The middle of "We End Up Together" gives us images of this "little brother" selling "cave paintings" to "bandits and their brides." Could this apply at all to me? Maybe 3 months later when I was selling It's All Academic (I guess only the vain might think to bandits).

Overall, "little brother's" escapades feel more dramatic because of piercing cello and guitar interplay, as well as the Pornographers unique use of voices, where Case's and Calder's voices set up each line (usually the first 3-syllables) with Newman's voice closing the line, almost always the last 3 syllables.  Maybe more than most bands, having the vocal styling of so many gifted singers allows the voices to be instruments, not simply conveyors of words.

I couldn't figure out the whole song, just these bits and pieces, the uncertainty captured in the repeated "Oh, and you look like you were saying something," the implication being that it is still being left unsaid.

At the end, we finally get the triumphant "We end up together," although nothing in the song suggests little brother ended up with anyone. The song's just fascinatingly puzzling, as almost every New Pornographers' song is. Newman has said he was inspired by thinking about the times he met his wife long before he married her and in retrospect wondering if he should have realized they would end up together. It's a sweet sentiment, but doesn't really explain the little brother stuff. 

I just know that my family were ecstatic when I found the next position. "With his slight victory," they must have sung to themselves, "little brother took the keys to the city which he found," and headed southwest to Dowagiac, leaving Grand Rapids far behind.  It's no longer as bitter a memory, because in the end, "We end up together." And in the end it is the faith that keeps you together through the hard times . . . if you're lucky.

"We End Up Together." The New Pornographers. Together. Matador. 2010. Link here.

1 Serba, John. "Calvin College Cancels The New Pornographers Concert Because Of The Band's Name." MLIVE. 9.14.10. https://www.mlive.com/entertainment/grand-rapids/2010//calvin_college_cancels_the_new

Day 110: The Sex Pistols "E.M.I."

Day 112: Hootie & The Blowfish "Hold My Hand."->

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