Monday, October 15, 2007


I heard Bel Canto for the first time at college, while riding in a car. Miami University in Oxford Ohio may not enjoy the highest profile, but in indie rock circles, few radio stations (college-associated or otherwise) have as much clout as WOXY. They have covered indie music with astonishing breadth and admirable penetration for decades. At some point I heard them play the title track from Bel Canto's second album Birds Of Passage, and it made a strong enough impression that when the car ride was over, I went to investigate Bel Canto more thoroughly.

To describe their music, one might refer to both Depeche Mode and Cocteau Twins, but as intriguing as that combination may be, it doesn't quite do Bel Canto justice. They were at the time a fearless Norwegian trio who approached electronic music with a pastoral, ethereal point of view, and a handful of languages at their disposal, selecting English, French or German (or none of the above) almost as they might select an instrument.

When musicians whose first language is not English make the effort to compose and sing in English, the results can be quite mixed. There's no point in listing some of the more laughable failures; more interesting are the times when a foreigner's perspective on English yields unusual, even poetic turns of phrase which are hard to imagine a native speaker devising.

Language is a factor in 'Intravenous'; the title itself is mispronounced on the one occasion we hear Anneli Marian Drecker sing it. 'Trauma' is pronounced to rhyme exactly with 'coma'. But there aren't any comedies of syntax; rather, a handful of cliches are rescued through seeming unawareness that they were cliches to start with. The overall effect of the lyrics is a rich impression of the semi-conscious state of our narrator, as she wavers between life and death on the operating table.

The chirping metronome that starts the song is an abstracted EKG, under which the lilting keyboard parts give the impression of whales. When Anneli begins to sing, her lyrics push and pull against the strong meter of the arrangement, dragging behind it, then snapping back onto the downbeat. It is a dreamlike state, at times brooding, and at others lucid and urgent. 'Send me a message / Escort me through the passage / into the dark side of life / Let me slip into the eternity / I sense a light, a cave so bright...'

The theme of this song is darker than the experience of hearing it. A woman who has suffered great injuries is kept alive but comatose, artificially and with great effort. From her suspended state she realizes the kind of life she would have if her caretakers succeed: low in quality, low in substance. And she can feel the alternative almost palpably; the relief of death is much more attractive to her. Her song is a silent plea to the doctors to give up, and let her go. 'Skip over this emergency / Forgive my sins, don't force me in / to live like a phantom / Still, this is nothing random / I'm meant to suffer and wait / But one minute more and it might be too late.'

That could be quite melodramatic, but here it doesn't have that effect. The most dramatic device is Anneli's switch to the higher octave in the second verse, which does increase the tension. As listeners, we are powerless to help her, but held in a strange stasis that is calm because she sounds calm.

The ethics of valuing life, and the thorny examples that test those ethics - abortion, euthanasia, assisted suicide, living wills - are the stuff of headlines. 'Intravenous' feels about a million miles away from all that. It's intensely personal, and tragic in a much more sophisticated manner. This song does not provide a winning scenario; whether she dies or is maintained in some vegetative state, she has lost, and so her point of view is explicitly that of choosing the lesser of two evils. Movingly, the song never gives us closure; despite the urgency of her last line, 'I'm losing time', it fades away, leaving us to ponder.

Bel Canto official website