Marnie Stern - "Transformer" (This Is It and I Am It and You Are It and So Is That and He Is It and She Is It and It Is It and That Is That)
Marnie Stern can be located, along with a number of other current artists, on a border between two rough assemblages of strategies for making music. The former tends to be rather provincial in its methodology, sticking to somewhat more plain, more straightforward concepts, while the latter favors strategies that dialectically engage the avant-garde as well as melodic pop, dynamically shunting back and forth between the two broad approaches. Whether this is a possible new status quo or just a strategy that will pop up from time to time depends on a number of factors. If enough interesting artists form a critical mass, such that they can attract or convert their contemporaries and the next generation, then so much the better for everyone involved. Of course if nothing comes to pass at all, we’ll muddle on as we’ve been. While perhaps uncharitable, I don’t think it’s out of bounds to say that very little art is interesting and creative, and not just bland mediocrity concretized in the form of notes and swaths of paint. The credo of the obsessive comber is that the next mp3 blog, the next online magazine, the next record-shop bin will reward one with a piece of rock music that isn’t narcoleptic in its banality. Pity the fools.
Which is why Marnie Stern and her guitar feel so important, and the title of her latest album works well as both metaphor for this potential shift and as a general explication of her musical methodology. This Is It and I Am It and You Are It and So Is That and He Is It and She Is It and It Is It and That Is That is a title evocative of a holistic, systemic understanding of existence. “It” is composed of a number of interlocking parts, pieces that are separate and distinct (“This,” “I,” “You,” “That,” “He,” “She,” “It”), but that are obviously connected and subsumed within a larger structure, the “It.” This isn’t some bullshit new age “Oh, we’re all part of the same universal essence” line, but a deeper claim about our social and moral connections.
As a metaphor for the possible change, the title gives a simplified description of a dialectical shift. The “This,” the “I,” the “You,” etc., aren’t so important on their own, but rather it is their connections – the way they are arranged – that is important. In a dialectical shift, the pieces themselves don’t change, but old connections are split apart and new ones are forged. While many might find the title cumbersome, it is a necessary annoyance. It’s a map, and while a map merely resembles what it represents, the metaphorical whole – the “It” – is so far-reaching as to require an atlas of equal expanse.
This isn’t merely postmodern play though, as the title is descriptive of Stern’s work as well. Listening to her albums, what is it that holds the songs together? There are vocal and guitar hooks (both of which have a higher place of prominence here, as opposed to her first album) that move swiftly by, and there are discrete quanta of percussion that obviously keep the beat but at the same time can be disconnected from each other. But where is the center? It’s nonexistent. There is no overarching principle, no pacemaker cell that gives rise to the parts; rather, it is the interaction of the parts that gives rise to the whole. There is nothing but the interlocking parts that together combine to become something new, something wholly different than merely the additive sum of their individual atoms: the “It.” In this way the title and Stern’s music itself are synecdochic of the general shift.