A couple of months ago, Ewan McGregor’s directorial debut—a film adaptation of Philip Roth’s American Pastoral—came and went with little fanfare. Chalk it up to Roth books being an uphill battle to adapt, but it was worth a shot, partially because the concept of an “American pastoral” is still so intriguing. As complicated as the traditional definition of “pastoral” has become this far into the twenty-first century (what with it being next to impossible to experience the natural world without thinking of it through the lens of Instagram filters and all), to add a layer to that, and ask about what would be a uniquely American version of that idealized serenity, is an almost comically difficult question. Do we have an American pastoral anymore? Did we ever?
If it ever existed to begin with, it was probably the Carter Family, considering how that first generation—A.P., Maybelle, and Sara—actually managed to create a style that was distinctly American and distinctly pastoral (i.e. made for and by people in a Malick-ian field at sunset). After that, though, it gets pretty murky. Early modern country—your Cashes, your Williamses, what have you—still kind of fits the bill, but the genre’s lineage diminishes the further down you go (I can think of approximately nothing less pastoral than this).
It seems like a desire to get out of the country and into the city had the benefit of creating rock and roll, but the byproduct of that was that it in effect ended up killing country music as a legitimate representation of, you know, the country. (As in, the countryside. Lord knows that modern country music does legitimately represent the US of A these days.) But now that so many of us are confined to the city, it appears that all we really want at heart is to find a way to get back to the country—and apparently so do our musicians.
Ty Segall and his Drag City label-mate Cory Hanson are not who you would initially think of when you think of “pastoral.” Segall in particular made his name—and continues to do so—on a style of “get yourself evicted for being too loud” rock and roll, and Hanson has been using his band Wand as a vehicle for soul-crushing rock since he apparently rose from the moleman sewer community in 2013. Neither would’ve had very high Vegas odds for producing some of the most tranquil, folk-y music in recent memory, and yet, here we are.
Despite all the intensity and volume of their increasingly prolific discographies, there’s this constant weird glimmer of a yearning for something softer. Something to silence the noise. In Segall’s case, that was most clearly manifested in 2013 with Sleeper—his acoustic album written in response to the death of his adopted father—and in flashes of other releases, such as his latest single, “Orange Color Queen.” And in the case of Hanson, it was The Unborn Capitalist from Limbo—his recent nylon-string solo affair said to have been inspired in part by the emotions of “panic, a car wreck, a shivering, and sudden liquification.” Both Sleeper and Unborn Capitalist are built upon a foundation of dystopian paranoia that’s then countered with an almost suspicious level of resolve, and both have the air of someone longing for something that they know isn’t really there. Oh, and both happen to represent some of the best music of their makers’ respective careers. (In Hanson’s case, anyway, it’s by far his crowning achievement to date.)
Making a racket in the middle of LA isn’t much of an accomplishment. But finding a way to shut up truly is.
It should be noted that Segall and Hanson are obviously heavily indebted to Marc Bolan, who, as you may have noticed, was British, not American. But there’s still something intrinsically American in the way that they’ve appropriated his British sound. Bolan, in his transition from Tyrannosaurus Rex to T. Rex, went from pastoral to heavy, but here in the States we seem to be more inclined to go the other direction altogether. Making a racket in the middle of LA isn’t much of an accomplishment when you think about it. But finding a way to shut up truly is.
Beck, whose music deserves its own spot in this conversation (One Foot in the Grave in particular), has said that he thinks folk music these days is just whatever people are making on computers at home. Just the same, the American pastoral in 2017 has transformed to become solely dependent on whatever you consider your pasture to be. The mode itself used to exist to celebrate an ordinary way of life—farming, trading, soggy bottoming, etc.—but for a lot of people in America right now, it’s hard enough to begin to consider what “ordinary” even is anymore. All that’s left, then, is to embrace the unordinary as a defining trait of our collective culture. And what could be more unordinary than hard rockers singing like nymphs in a field beneath a beard of stars? FL