There are bodies, and there are words. The bodies shift sides and see their components replaced; they look in mirrors and see themselves made horrific, the mechanical overtaking the organic, and they ask themselves whether they can still feel, still love. The words, too, were once familiar. They’re now scattered and reconfigured, devoured and reassembled in new forms, accounts of morality and familial strife dredged into a surreal moment, populated with unfamiliar names, given new and fluctuating boundaries. There’s a terror in that.
A long scream ends the title song of Are We Not Horses?, the 2006 album from the Toronto band Rock Plaza Central. It’s a horrific, guttural utterance, the sound of something alienated from what it had once been. That’s Chris Eaton’s voice: he’s the singer, guitarist, and primary songwriter. Eaton’s voice can also be heard in the words of the novels The Inactivist, a study of urban idealism, and especially The Grammar Architect, a surreal re-imagining of Thomas Hardy’s novel A Pair of Blue Eyes. You wouldn’t necessarily know that from what’s inside: Hardy’s account of starcrossed love has been shifted into a postmodern Toronto populated by downcast gods and forlorn recipients of body modification gone awry.
Rock Plaza Central‘s new album, …at the Moment of our Most Needing or If Only They Could Turn Around, They Would Know They Weren’t Alone, wears the same cover-version aesthetic on its sleeve. In this case, it’s William Faulkner’s Light In August that finds itself re-interpreted. As with The Grammar Architect, this isn’t immediately apparent: there are warnings about “the words of handsome men” and references to a never ending pursuit of an elusive quarry, both of which resonate with Light In August‘s narrative, but the album’s lyrics remain vague, creating a sort of outline of Faulkner’s situations into which other names, faces, and events can be substituted.
Chris Eaton is not the first artist to manipulate the tensions between disorientation and tuneful bliss. He is, however, one of the few to do so across multiple disciplines, and it’s impossible to separate the concerns articulated in his music from those that occur in his fiction, or vice versa. In The Grammar Architect, an opera singer named Anne-Sophie is abducted and subjected to a series of operations that effectively render her inhuman. There’s a similar blending of identity, of the organic and the mechanical, in the concept behind Rock Plaza Central‘s Are We Not Horses?, an album told from the perspective of robot horses waging war on angels. Are We Not Horses? has beautiful moments, in particular the triumphant “My Children, Be Joyful” and the stark “When We Go, How We Go (Part 1),” but there’s a sense of intentional alienation throughout. This is not necessarily an album in which robots and angels are used metaphorically: when you hear a love song, it never quite leaves your mind that this is a love song sung by a robot horse. And when Eaton delivers a line like “separated angels from their wings,” it’s made much more visceral than one might expect, the cracks in his voice summoning sinew and bone.
In 2007, I interviewed Eaton for the now-defunct music website Paper Thin Walls. His lyrical imagery and his penchant for subjects nonhuman and inhuman were among the topics up for discussion. “Robots and circus freaks let me talk about identity in a much broader sense,” he explained, and went on to root those concerns in something much more specific. “Half the time I’m just struggling with whether or not I’m a real author, or that I play in a real band. I’m certainly unable to make a living off it. So is it more of a hobby than what I really am?”
Though Are We Not Horses? attracted the group a wider audience, it was far from Rock Plaza Central‘s first album: their discography extends back to a 1996 cassette-only release, and a recent show at Brooklyn’s The Bell House drew heavily on 2003′s fine The World Was Hell to Us. It also, surprisingly, found the group playing in a far louder register than one might expect, given their music’s roots in folk and country instrumentation.
Listening to The World Was Hell to Us — and the bittersweet “The Things That Bind You” and the stark, crystalline “You As a Landscape” are two of the best songs Eaton has penned — also reveals something else: Eaton’s voice has grown more raw with time. This isn’t the slow weathering of a Bob Dylan or the heightened stylization of a Tom Waits. Instead, it feels like an inverted post-punk progression — rather than the heart-on-sleeve screamer slowly learning to croon, we’re hearing the singer-songwriter discovering how to weave ugliness into his delivery. It’s an odd thing to compliment, but looking at Eaton’s body of work, it makes sense: though Rock Plaza Central‘s music has been heard by more and more people in recent years, their albums have grown as intentionally disorienting as their frontman’s novels.
“I think my music used to be more linear and the fiction was all over the place,” Eaton said in 2007. “But the two of them are meeting in a place I really like, something that still doesn’t depend on a linear storyline but probably tells the story a lot more vividly. I’m into showing snapshots of life that hopefully combine into a photo album that tells a story. And in both cases, I feel like the snapshots could be rearranged and reinterpreted by readers and listeners, and that’s exciting to me, too.”
That aspect of reinterpretation also suffuses Rock Plaza Central‘s recent …at the Moment of our Most Needing. In discussing how he developed the cover-novel aspects of The Grammar Architect, Eaton explained, “I cut up little plot points, reading the original book and dropping little sentences into the hat. I didn’t use character names, just things like ‘Daughter falls in love with architect. Father upset.’ And then I tried as often as possible to quote passages from the original, and even lots of passages from other genre fiction.” Like Dirty Projectors’ 2007 Rise Above, …at the Moment of our Most Needing feels less like a direct translation of Light In August and more of a transmission of a remembered version of the same, with certain themes and moments resonating more strongly than others.
The album shifts from banjo-driven campfire songs to broad-stroke spaghetti-western atmospherics. Its enunciation is closer in tone to The World Was Hell to Us than Are We Not Horses? — there’s a precision to the playing and sharper distinctions from song to song. (Are We Not Horses?, as befits its concept-album status, feels like a lengthier meditation on its characters and images.) Eaton’s rapid-fire, panicked delivery of “Holy Rider” abounds with a nervous emotion offset by the sweep of strings, his voice only rendered calmer for a moment, his line “help me find her” honestly desperate.
The ugliness hasn’t been forgotten, though. Listen to the raggedness of Eaton’s voice on “The Hot Blind Earth,” which brings the album to a close. “I feel like a wet seed wild in the hot blind earth,” he sings, a line borrowed from Faulkner — though in this case, it’s not Light In August but As I Lay Dying. And as the mood turns redemptive, the music behind that voice segues into an upswell, something like an anarchist orchestra playing their take on Led Zeppelin’s “Kashmir”.
In the course of discussing The Grammar Architect, Eaton mentioned the character of Burke, a writer who “thinks his friends’ lives are really boring. Or he doesn’t understand them and needs good motivation. So when he’s retelling their stories, he embellishes. After Anne-Sophie breaks up with him, for example, he makes her into a monster. As the dumped are wont to do. Simply by writing them down, he makes them true.”
Chris Eaton’s voice, then, brings with it the sound of the horror of being re-imagined, a painful rebirth via rewrite. It’s a deeply modern concern, and it’s one that Eaton’s explorations have translated into a body of work that’s both aesthetically complex and deeply accessible. Although for all of the intellectual pleasures and terrors that Eaton summons up, it’s still the visceral physicality of his grittier deliveries that haunts the most.