Monday, July 2, 2007


Sisters Of Mercy have suffered a downturn of opinion over the last fifteen years. Andrew Eldridge, the front man cum totalitarian of the group, is now best known as goth rock's biggest diva - pushing out band members, sabotaging their subsequent projects, disavowing his goth fan base... Beside all that, he is (was? it's been a while) a huge talent, and I defy goths of a certain age to claim that Floodland, Sisters Of Mercy's second and best album, was not formative. Lord knows plenty of second and third rate goth rock bands have tried to imitate it.

I remember the complete and total ecstasy 'This corrosion' inspired on dance floors for what seemed like years. The theatrics of 'Dominion/Mother Russia'. The grittiness of 'Lucretia my reflection'. Those songs, while great, may have dominated the dark music scene a little too much in their time; I regard them now as classics that need not be played often. An album track, not a single, earns my highest praise.

It's difficult to resist the urge to simply transcribe the lyrics to 'Driven like the snow' in their entirety; they are that compelling. Eldridge repeatedly demonstrated his prowess with words, sometimes in stark, clipped images, and other times in looser, more impressionistic language, but always brimming with darkness and ominousness. 'Driven like the snow' shows him at his peak, lyrically, calling to mind Russian writers like Dostoevsky, Gogol, and Pasternak. Musically it is one of his subtlest works, almost completely avoiding the bombast that made his singles so powerful. (This is the man, after all, who called the New York Choral Society to do back-up vocals on 'This corrosion', to amazing effect.)

The minimal, quiet organ-like synth notes that take up the first minute of 'Driven' describe a bleak, vast landscape bordered by wine dark seas. When the unhurried drum finally begins its march through the rest of the song without a single beat of fill, the stage is set for a story told by a hardened elder who fights sentimentality with coarseness: 'Still night / Nothing for miles / White curtain come down / Kill the lights in the middle of the road / and take a look around'.

The narrator is stranded in his car in a bleak wilderness, in danger of being covered over by a snowstorm, and he entertains a flood of memories that piece together the history of a settlement, not quite a civilization. A lot is encompassed: marriage, death, the struggle to continue a bloodline, the oppressive climate. Isolation wins over connectedness, illustrated in one of Eldritch's pithiest and most quoted lines: 'I don't go there now but I hear they sung / their "Fuck me and marry me young"' - an entire culture is painted in a few short strokes. The fragmented images - 'lipstick on my cigarette', 'some wild idea in a big white bed' add up to an existence that is hardened and oppressive, but inescapable, and ultimately unquestioned.

As the unexpected climax in this traction-less car, the narrator ponders it all, and through some force of will, he asserts the truth of life, the positivity that comes out of staring down the existentialist dilemmas. 'And the cars lost in the drifts are there / And the people that drive / lost in the drifts are there / And the cares I've lost in the drifts are there.' [Bold face added by this author.] This is what assures the song its kinship to literature; it's a particular version of man vs nature, in which nature determines who man is, then tries to kill him anyway. This man must summon an affirmative grasp simply to survive, because in so many cases his compatriots have failed.

The final bit of poetry, foreshadowed earlier in the song, turns on the title phrase. 'And you're driven like the snow / Pure in heart / Driven together / and driven apart...' The plodding bass and arpeggiated acoustic guitar fade out of earshot; we feel they will keep on, as wind across the tundra, for days upon days.

We will never know what becomes of our stranded narrator. The existentialist scenario could very comfortably leave him there to die. Or it could rescue him and deliver him to conditions that make him wish he had died in the car. Or it might present him with a good life that is ultimately cheapened by the realization that he left something crucial behind in the car. No matter what the future holds, it will be snowing and dark and miles away from anything.

Take the majority of Sisters Of Mercy's corpus and defenestrate it. 'Driven like the snow' is one of the notable exceptions to a catalog that has struggled against overexposure, excessive diluted referencing by lesser bands, and bad public relations. It is the best short story in a great collection.

Sisters Of Mercy official website