I believe it was the spring of 2007 when Lauren, a student in Daily Themes, gave me a disc of songs. One of them was “Fake Palindromes” by some guy named Andrew Bird, whom I had never heard of. Actually, I had heard of almost no one on that disc. But the song by Bird was one that I found myself looking forward to whenever I played the disc. Come to find out he had a new LP out by then, called Armchair Apocrypha. I got it and it was one of my favorite LPs of the year. It was either that or The New Pornographers’ Challengers. And I saw Bird open for the NPs in Philly that summer. Bliss.
So today’s song is one of the latest songs I’ve loved by Andrew Bird. It’s from 2011’s Break It Yourself and features his oddly stripped down sound, what with whistling and little glints of musical sonorities that seem not so much suppressed as shrugged off. What Bird has done since The Mysterious Production of Eggs (2005)—the album with “Fake Palindromes”—is maintain a mix of the intricate, the delicate, and the casually off-hand. Most of the songs on his albums are simply pleasant sonic spaces to inhabit, but on each of the albums I’m familiar with there are some standout songs that kind of take over my psychic space for a time, seeming to be, in their almost affectless attachment to their own idiosyncrasy, badges or emblems of something I’ve always counted on music for: the illusion that life is hummable, I guess. Or maybe hearing beauty delivered.
Bird’s beauty is that he’s able to allow a lot of space into his music and let the song seem to construct itself as you listen. Apparently, he works a long time, with many different iterations, constructing the song in the first place, but what we get sometimes feels like it’s being worked out as we listen. Check out the video to see how this looks in person.
“Lazy Projectors” I’ve chosen because its theme relates well to the general purpose of these posts. It’s about how memory doesn’t so much play tricks as simply create, like a filmmaker, a version of events that accord with its own powers, prejudices, and emphases. “If memory serves us, then who owns the master / How do we know who's projecting this reel.” We do the same in writing, of course, in altering our wording to suit the conception of the moment—the moment of writing—regardless of what we would have said or how we would have avoided saying anything in the time we’re recalling. Already I’ve visited more than a few of such instances, born back ceaselessly into the past—as Scotty says, in his best high diction—for the sake of a few last snapshots. That’s about the best you’ll get.
Not only questioning who is projecting the reel, but also who is doing the filming, calling the shots.
Now who's the best boy and the casting director / And the editor splicing your face from the scene / It's all in the hands of a lazy projector / That forgetting, embellishing, lying machine
I’ll go with that—there is forgetting, for which we sometimes substitute “wrong memories.” And there is embellishing, which isn’t wrong so much as reworked. And then there’s lies, just because. There’s always a good reason to lie, I believe, unless you’re a sociopath who does it automatically. The lie is for the sake of avoiding the truth, for a purpose.
The idea being that there is a truth “back there” but that it is not and never can be shared exactly. Or precisely. And all the doubt comes from the difference between the person who was there and the person who recalls. There is a key non-identity present (or past), which Bird figures as the “lazy projector.” Lazy suggests he might get it right if he bothered. And sometimes that is the case. Often. Like when a student simply writes something wrong and you can tell they really knew the right answer, they just weren’t careful. But sometimes they remember a distortion or relay one, at least.
I remember telling a stressed friend studying for a big exam (they’re called “comprehensives”) in grad school: just talk about what you remember. What we don’t remember is infinite. What we remember is finite, so let’s get that part right. After all this isn’t poetry.
Poetry, as the estimable Harold Bloom says, is a lie against time. In that kind of “lie,” getting it “right” isn’t the point. The point is the embellishment. But then such embellishing is often the antithesis of “lazy.” It’s very, very deliberate about the liberties it will take, and why.
I like the bridge in Bird’s song because it’s where he seems to step forward and take to task his own conceit that memory is somehow a case of “projection” (which is his “lie against time,” if you like):
They say all good things must come to an end
Every day the night must fall
How it all came to this, I simply can't recall
Too many cooks in the kitchen
How the mighty must fall
But I can't see the sense in us breaking up at all
Each day, good or bad, comes to an “end” (which itself is a kind of lie), and the “simply can’t recall” eludes the point of saying anything about the past: “how it all came to this” expects that there is an explanation. It’s easier to say we don’t remember than that we don’t know. Then a few clichés that might “explain”: too many cooks, the mighty must fall . . . the first generally means that there are too many contrary opinions or “recipes” so that a plethora of explanations means none are trusted; the second suggests “fate” (ananke) and perhaps the ancient Greek ideas (earlier Pyramus and Apollo are mentioned) of hubris and hamartia. The “breaking up at all” seems to come out of nowhere until we realize it’s in reference to the good thing coming to an end and the “it” that “came to this.” It was good but now it’s gone, to cite “Boy from Tupelo.”
The song seems to suggest—with its most passionate, non-shrugging moment in the reiterations “no, I can’t see the sense in us breaking up at all”—that the lazy projectors can cover the difference. We don’t remember things the same, we don’t know how we got here, we wonder if it’s inevitable, but, all the same, “forgetting, embellishing, lying” are in the nature of the beast. “It’s nothing to get hung about,” as Lennon might say. Or Bird: “Come on, tell us something we don’t know.”
Maybe, if we lie against time sufficiently, things will turn out differently.