Bullet the words at the mockingbirds: The poetry of genre-crossing musician Wesley Eisold is not for the Squeamish
By Danja Philine Prahl
Where he comes from is perhaps as hard to say as where he goes. Wesley Eisold, born in 1979, has seemingly lived everywhere in the USA, besides spending some years in Germany. Fronting several bands of the hardcore punk genre (such as American Nightmare/Give up the Ghost or Some Girls) has gained him some fame within the scene, but the past years have seen Eisold exploring more electronic paths with his solo project, Cold Cave, ranging from experimental noisescapes to synth-laden new wave. What is notable about him, though, is not just this sharp stylistic turn or his tendency to meander from place to place and band to band. Since his hardcore days, Wesley Eisold has stood out for his lyrics. While many bands of the genre concentrate on simple slogans to be chanted back at them by the crowd – “Loyalty! Brotherhood! Integrity! Honor! Words that mean less than a spit to the toilet!,” Eisold scoffs in his tour diaries – there has always been a darker and more complex side to Eisold’s lines. Not surprisingly perhaps, as he is also a published poet who has appeared in the Columbia Journal for literature and arts. His first and only book to date, Deathbeds, is a collection of his lyrics, poetry and prose from 1999–2007 and was released by Eisold’s own publishing house, Heartworm Press. Although reprinted for its fifth anniversary in early 2012, Deathbeds remains almost impossible to get due to the small number of copies produced. However, for a writer this gifted with raw honesty and rhythmic flow of language, it would come as a surprise if his literary output should end there.
It may be due to Eisold’s hardcore roots that Deathbeds does not exactly treat its reader gently. In fact it is hard to determine whether the author feels more hatred towards himself or the world, but he handles his own misanthropy with a certain tongue-in-cheek attitude, flashing up in lines like the following dialogue:
“I thought you hate girls! Like you’re on some MC5 shit or something.“
“Nah, it’s not girls, it’s everyone.“
Despite these hints of self-irony, Deathbeds remains, just like most of Eisold’s song lyrics, a dark and intrinsically bitter read. The book bursts with strong language and neverending mentions of body fluids. Sex is a cornerstone of these early works, infiltrating nearly every single text of the collection as something made dirty and shameful by its compulsiveness. Women, in turn, become a necessary evil, though not all of them as evil as the one we meet in the following poem, titled “The Time I Almost Was A Dad”:
I’ve aborted your kid, she told me
I meant to tell you sooner
But I slept with this kid named Joel while you were away
So perhaps it was his
But Joel has herpes
So at least you’ll get something out of this.
This poem is essentially a tragedy in three acts, each act made up of merely two lines, each a verbal punch to the stomach. It is a prime example of Eisold’s talent to tell an ugly truth straight to your face, but rounded off with a bittersweet punchline that makes it impossible to hate him for it. The poem is also intriguing because it treats abortion from the point of view of the (uninformed) father-to-be, relating a situation that probably occurs a lot more often than we are aware of, but remains a taboo topic.
The fact that Eisold is a musician as well as a poet is especially evident in the rhythmic language that invades even his prose. For instance, “The Shower Nozzles of Mental Masturbatory Illness”, a short story in letter form that tells about Eisold’s college days and the meaningful discovery of a peep hole in the wall of the girls’ showers, holds rhyming patterns that blur the border between prose and poetry:
My peers were seemingly still drunk and moronic, each a potential Icarus, not flying but stumbling home hungover with a post-fuck yawn on the brink of someone else’s collegiate dawn. I had such a headache for the expensive confetti, nostrilized and ready, flared in synch with the same feet keeping the same beat that somehow pumps life into the songs that I just wished would die already.
Notably, motives from “The Shower Nozzles …” appear elsewhere in his work, such as the song “Spider Earth” by XO Skeletons:
The locker rooms of my heart
The shower nozzles of love
There’s nothing else I could do
Pre-fab pukes on
Some collegiate lawn
Post-fuck yawns on
A problematic dawn
Moreover, “The Shower Nozzles …” plays skilfully with the view of the outsider, part voyeur, part critic. Observing the arrival of the freshmen on campus, the narrator cynically remarks how
Christian parental passerbys speed through Pagan sponsored highways to deliver their babies to the challenges of a University. […] How cruel the world must seem when the palms delivering your babies trace the lines of all you’ve done to others but would never want done to anyone you love. How cruel is the Golden Rule for your eighteen-year-old daughters when you’ve lived cheaply gold-plated?
Here as well, the use of rhymes and alliterations posits the text close to poetry. The motif of the Golden Rule, then, reappears in Eisold’s poem “Golden”, asking:
How cruel is the golden rule,
When the lives we lived are only gold-plated?
“Golden”, by the way, was reworked by commercially successful pop-punk band Fall Out Boy into a song of the same title, resulting in a lawsuit that possibly brought Eisold more media attention than any of his work up to then had received. The above examples show that in Eisold’s oeuvre the lines between prose, poetry or song lyrics are blurry. It appears that often the words precede the music that underlines them. Up until the more pop-oriented sound on Cold Cave’s 2011 album, Cherish The Light Years, Eisold has always tended to either shout or scream his message or more recently to employ speech instead of actual singing, which of course influences the song-writing process. However, during his hardcore days the meaning of the words was often swallowed by the noise of the music or became distorted by vocal techniques such as “growling” (used mostly in metalcore and related genres). While speaking, contrary to screaming, makes it easier to bring a message across, Eisold continued to work with voice distortions, underlining that often the rhythm of language is more important to him than the contents. Although he’d played with the deconstruction of language and meaning before, most notably in the Some Girls song “Deathface”, the nine-minute finale to their 2006 album “Heaven’s Pregnant Teens”, which ends with the stoic repetition of the word “ape” for several minutes. Perhaps not intentionally, this always reminds me of Peter Handke’s 1967 play “Kaspar”, about the language-learning process of Kaspar Hauser, which climaxes with Kaspar repeating the words “Ziegen und Affen” (“goats and apes”) over and over.
Some examples of spoken lyrics can be found on the bedroom recordings Eisold published in 2010 under the moniker Ye Olde Maids. On “Depressed Skull #2”, for instance, the focus on the sound of the words goes hand in hand with an abstraction of meaning:
It is not so hot in the heat of a bullet brain tumored Gideon’s plane collision headed Sealy stained screaming mattress dead springed roommate waking fuck.
I’m gonna silver bullet the dead doormen of heaven’s gate fanged fate following sin ridden apes of wrath until I’m stripped of the skin that’s keeping it all in.
These examples resemble a stream of consciousness, evoking a certain atmosphere rather than a tangible message. It becomes clear that Eisold’s departure from the hardcore scene has not rid his lyrics of despair: The teenage angst, the trees that “grew emotions and died“, remain present everywhere in the lyrics of his current project Cold Cave, nevermind the upbeat feel that the synthesizers pump through some of the songs. Especially the 2009 collection Cremations holds haunting lines to match its eerie soundscapes: “Heavenly Metals”, another track featuring spoken vocals, is effectively a post-apocalyptic short story turned song, reminiscent of the bleak future created by cyber-punk pioneer William Gibson. With a computer-like voice speaking over the minimalistic backdrop of high-pitched, drilling noises, “Heavenly Metals“ turns into an iron-cold four-minute horror trip:
I was born in the middle of a war
The hospital was the last thing to fall out
Located on the dark end of where a street used to be
It was the last functioning building
When the apocalypse junkyard
Put android snipers on the roof in a hidden chamber
The dream was at once flown from the IVs
Would pump you full of heavenly metals
That personally hand you a ticket to somewhere better
The holes hover over all of us
Maybe it’s a sign
I wake up thirsty yet again
To the floods of acid rain
The wretched robotic, smoke-stained, amputee night nurses
Try to harmonize my future
They are all tone deaf, their shrieks break the windows that we no longer have.
It is interesting to observe how Eisold’s lyrics have made the transition from genres as different as hardcore and new wave. And yet their tone has shifted only slightly, from open-hearted despair and rage towards resignation, but with that certain bittersweet taste that makes it only half as bad, as this example from the track “Underworld USA” (2011) shows:
I will love you with all of the love that I have
Even if that means there’s none left for me
In Eisold’s native United States, Cold Cave’s reimagining of bands such as The Cure, Depeche Mode and New Order has seen critics and fans raving alike, gladly following his invitation to “the tender cemetery where we are always here to stay.” At least until the next time Wes Eisold’s vagabond nature carries him to new musical shores.
Danja Philine Prahl studies Media Text and Media Translation at the University of Hildesheim, Germany. She also works as a freelance journalist and runs the music blog indie pen dance (http://indiependanceblog.wordpress.com).