As soon as my kid has manual dexterity, I’m pushing a tambourine into its hand. And we will rock out to the second half of this video:
Mutemath’s sophomore album (if you’re only counting the full-length LPs and the Warner Bros.’ releases) dropped two days ago. I preordered it, something I’d never done in the several years that I’ve had iTunes, so I was almost startled Tuesday at the crack of midnight, when it became available to me. (What? So soon?) I downloaded it immediately thereafter. I was flying to Grand Rapids from Baltimore that day, so I didn’t get a chance to listen to it in earnest until I was at the airport, and even then I resisted.
You want your first listen to a new project by your favorite band of all time to be exclusive and undivided and hallowed.
So when we boarded the plan at 2:20 pm, only to learn from our pilot that we’d be captive on the tarmac for at least an hour, I finally pulled out my iPod.
I’ll admit that, on first listen, I wasn’t entirely impressed with this album. There are songs on it that practically scream: “Maybe this’ll be the one that lands us that headlining gig at Madison Square Garden!”
I almost let myself feel a bit betrayed—and I’m usually not one of those toolish indie band fans who gets genuinely irritated when its band “goes mainstream.” I’m usually not one of those people who has to stand on a soapbox and rage into a bullhorn, “I knew them when! I had them first! You don’t deserve them!”
Because it’s pretty lame to get downright proprietary about people you don’t even know.
Even so, this wasn’t the Mutemath to which I’d grown accustomed. The sounds on Armistice are milder, quieter, tamer (appropriate, given the album title, but still). Whither the Paul who shouted through most of the tracks, backed by frenetic percussion and landfill-funky bass? Whither the songs that allow you to envision exactly the moment at which Paul will handstand on his organ in concert? These songs simply weren’t as full of bangs and blasts and crackles and roars.
One thing seemed certain: gone were the days of the Atari.
I first saw Mute Math in concert at The Knitting Factory, not long after I moved to New York. I was so excited, I think I might have completely lamed out and worn a band t-shirt. I knew there was a distinct possibility that I’d be the only Black person there and I didn’t care. My live experience with this band had been years in the making and I wasn’t going to flake because of any race-related awkwardness. The fact was: I knew I belonged there. I belonged there so much, my skin prickled with goosebumps when I walked into the venue.
That I love this band is a given. They’re great showmen. Paul Meany used to do handstands on an organ at their shows. Just because. Darren duct-tapes headphones around his head during sound check, because he’s such a spastic, frenetic drummer that they’d likely fly off if they weren’t secured. Roy has an unflappable cool whether singing back-up, plucking an upright, playing bass or banging drumsticks on the sides of speakers. Greg has an open, earnest face at which you can’t help but stare when he open shows with the battle cry at the beginning of “Collapse.”
These men are an electric spectacle.
But my affinity for them goes far beyond their showmanship or their lyrics or their instrumentation (all of which are remarkable in limitless ways). You see, like Desmond Hume is to Daniel Faraday on Lost, this band is one of my Constants.
Truly, I’ve told myself on many a day, “If anything goes wrong, Mute Math will be my Constant.”
In the years leading up to the fateful move to New York that brought me face to face with my favorite band of all time, I was going through a painful separation. From my church. That’s a long, different story and one I won’t belabor here, but by the time I started grad school, I wasn’t regularly attending any church and wasn’t in any particular rush to find one after relocating.
The fact was: even when I attended church three times a week, which I’d done for the majority of my youth, I’d always felt like a bit of a misfit. For starters, I wanted to be a fiction writer—and not the kind who writes morality plays or romances where some reprobate finds faith through his love for a righteous woman. I wanted to write stories about women fighting over the death of a crack addict they’d both taken as a lover or tales about a biracial Canadian who infiltrates a slave plantation or simply stories about girls who drink beer and don’t wait until they’re married. And that didn’t really bode well for the pursuit of holiness.
So I hid my dreams of writing mainstream fiction (or my dreams of becoming a Professional Liar, depending on your point of view, I guess), and I wrote spiritual, spoken word poetry instead.
In the ’90s, rapid-fire spoken word was the thing. I came of age before the Love Jones trend hit the pulpit, so what I was writing seemed intriguing and anomalous to congregants. I penned critical poems about the trappings of materialism and greed and how true religion and undefiled before God was more about tending to the fatherless, widowed, hungry, sick, and afflicted than about building massive infrastructures within which to hold exorbitantly priced, cliché-laden mega-conferences.
People would clap at the end, but I felt largely unheard. In the intervening years, I realized that I was, in fact, noticed, if not wholly heard (and to be fair, I was quite difficult to follow with my mumbly, super-swift delivery and my inaccessible vocabulary). I’m still asked if I write these kinds of poems, poems that I felt were rebellious, anti-establishment, locust-and-honey-filled rallying cries. I do not. And mostly, I’m okay with that.
But even though I left my church and started writing whatever I wanted, rather than solely focusing on what would be acceptable to utter in front of an altar, I’ve always retained a reverence and concern for my faith and its survival—and that reverence and concern isn’t always easy to maintain.
Enter Mute Math. Well, no. Enter Earthsuit.