Easier to hate than love: My ups and downs with Argyle Park
Argyle Park’s album Misguided was a milestone in many ways. Released right in the middle of the nineties by two New York sound artists shrouding themselves in mystery using three different aliases, and sporting almost as many great guest vocalists as tracks, this cutting-edge trip of a concept album is at times harsh, unreal, and about as stylistically diverse and unorthodox as it could ever get without becoming ridiculous (with some of the downright coolest movie samples ever – there should be an ‘Argyle Park film club’ – who’s in?), and it has actually been called the best album of the nineties. It is definitely one of the most underrated albums of all time. The main artist behind the project (known today as Klayton) has since moved on to greater fame, but has recently re-acquired the rights to Misguided and will soon be releasing a three-disc special edition, which for me is actually the most looked-forward-to release this year. (How’s that for an opening paragraph?)
It should have become clear by now that I love Argyle Park. But this is not meant to be a mere laudation: I would like to write more about how my changing attitude towards life, the universe, and everything, over the years – what I now like to call the long, hard road out of fundamentalism – is reflected in my changing relationship to this album. Frankly, I love Argyle Park, but it wasn’t always that way. At one time I found it easier to hate than love this album. But let me narrate.
I first got this CD after having heard the track “Doomsayer” (mislabeled as “Gutterboy”) on an R.E.X. label sampler. Stylistically, this was exactly my cup of tea. Gritty drum computers, layers of guitars, Mark Salomon’s rap vocals, and an overall dark atmosphere. I dug the song – and the entire album – immensely. The problem that the culture surrounding me would later lead me to perceive circled around the lyrical content. We just did not dig this kind of thing. (I almost began the last sentence with “One does not simply…”.) If I remember correctly, a lot of the lyrics (well, some lyrics were not or only incompletely printed in the booklet to begin with, I wonder why) just simply mystified me. “Leave me alone”? “You made me violent”? “Now it’s time for suffering, to shed the skin to which you cling”? To be sure, there were lots of ‘Christian’ artists on this album, but then why was it all so negative and hateful sounding? Not even to mention the hidden album outro… What were they thinking? So many questions with no solutions..
Then, one fateful day, our youth pastor had the great idea of having a young guy in our church, who was studying music (and that made him an authority in our eyes), talk to our youth group about music and Christianity. So on the very night that three of my favorite bands were playing a few hundred kilometers away (I was too young to drive there myself and had vainly sought for help from our youth pastor), we were sitting together learning about how some kinds of music just don’t honor God. What I ‘learned’ that night has probably taken years for me to deconstruct.
Anyway, to cut a long story short, soon after this incident I felt convinced that I wasn’t to listen to stuff like Argyle Park anymore, because it didn’t “give God the glory”… whatever on earth that should be taken to mean. Seriously, I have no idea what I would have said back then if you would have asked me what I meant by that phrase. Some kinds of music (and especially some kinds of lyrics) just didn’t give glory to God. Boom. Today, not only does that thought seem pretty nonsensical to me, it just seems brimming with arrogance. Arrogance towards all the artists involved in this project, Christian or not, and what they were doing. Arrogance towards the lives, experiences and choices of those who wrote and performed these lyrics. Look at me, I know best. You’re not doing things the way you should. I know because I am a fourteen-year-old church kid who has never written a song or even remotely understands your songs or where they’re coming from, but who has been talked to about what is right and wrong in music, and so I know. Good grief. Thankfully, this period cannot have lasted too long – I have some fond memories of blasting Misguided and annoying people at the place where I did my civil service around the year 2000.
The ridiculous irony of it all is that Argyle Park was really all about the kind of damage potentially inflicted on its members by such self-absorbed, judgmental faith commuinities. It took some years for me to realize (of course, reading and listening to interviews with AP members helped, too). But a few years within an abusive Christian community have really helped open my eyes to the meaning of a lot of these lyrics. I feel I now know where they are coming from. And the more I think about it, the more ashamed I feel about all the judgment going on in those communities that I was a part of. I know the damage. I am the damage.
Maybe I shouldn’t be ashamed primarily of myself and things I said or thought during my short “Argyle Park is not ok” phase. I was a gullible fourteen-year-old after all. But I do feel ashamed that such a culture even exists. A culture in which sadness and anger are not expressed but repressed… in which a clean outside is valued above a truthful inside. A culture which claims to be based on the teachings of Jesus, and yet in which this toxic shallowness persists. And most of all, I feel sad for the unguarded hearts of all the other gullible fourteen-year-olds that grow up in such a culture overpowered, and with no possibility to escape.
I ended my last post with an allusion to the song “Killer” by Saviour Machine. Klayton’s own term for very much the same thing seems to be “Refractor”. However you want to call it, these lyrics are reflections on the damaging nature of prohibitive, self-absorbed faith communities. Which brings me to another thought. I recently heard on the Robcast (Episode 98 | Rabbi Joel Brings 6 Words) that the Hebrew word for Egypt (as in “I am JHWH who led you out of Egypt”) is mitzrayim, which literally means ‘the narrow place’. Wow. If it’s ironic that Argyle Park’s lyrics are about the very kinds of faith communities which are prone to condemn them, it’s doubly ironic that the story of the Bible (the sacred text to such faith communities) is about a liberation from ‘the narrow place’.
I somehow made the jump. My mind is free from this kind of thinking. And would like to think it’s because I’ve seen the scars. I am now approaching a different kind of spirituality. I have no clear idea where it’s gonna lead. But it’s good that way, because that’s actually part of it. Not having all the answers. Not knowing it all. Not having it all figured out. Not writing hatemail to not-sounding-Christian-enough bands. It feels good to break loose, or to use another term from Klayton, to “disengage”. Thank you for these lyrics. Thank you to the Park. I can’t wait to revisit it soon.
A new path now stands before me
And I will carry this burden
Though knowing how to carry it
Is foreign to this child’s mind
(Argyle Park, “Headscrew” [possibly misheard])