“Pixillate”: Fractured Identity & the Power of Art

I spent a lot of time writing about literature in college and during my MFA program. As a writer, learning to evaluate and talk about writing is a pretty handy skill, some might say an instrumental skill. Even when I read for pleasure now, part of my mind is always evaluating, trying sentences in different constructions, trying to predict character actions or upcoming turns of plot, and so forth.

Because music is a vital part of my daily life, it’s probably no surprise that I frequently run the same mental games on the songs and albums I listen to—evaluating how or why a song achieves its effect, explicating how lyrics and music combine to form meaning. I’ll show you what I mean.

A while back, I wrote about a musical selection by the Devin Townsend Band called Synchestra and how it had influenced a short story I was writing (“Synchestra: Unleashing the Transdimensional Space Goat on America’s Wickedest Street”). I’d like to take a look now at one of the tracks from this album, a song called “Pixillate.” The song comes on the second half of the album; if we were to consider the album as a novel—a not inappropriate comparison, considering we’re talking about progressive rock here—this song would be well into the rising action, heading into the dark of the woods, approaching the black moment or crisis. 

“Pixillate” begins quietly with a simple, deep guitar playing single notes and in the background a chanted vocalization that gives the opening an Arabic feel. I initially thought this guitar was a bass until I watched a live performance video and saw it’s Devin Townsend playing it on a guitar. After a few measures, some drum beats are added, and the sound builds. More guitars, more building. The feeling is of uplift and anticipation.

At about 2:17 (of an 8:18 song), we get to the first proper lyrics, sung by the lovely Anneke van Giersbergen:

You are the rainbow!
You are the sun to my chameleon!

These lines are followed by Devin singing

We are the river!
We are the stone!

Up to this point, this song fits with Devin’s stated theme for the overall record, which is that “the whole world is a single entity and we are all elements of that.” We are both the river and the stone over which the river flows. It’s an empowering idea, and an empowering sound accompanies this section. However, remember that the song is titled “Pixillate,” which calls to mind digital images breaking up on monitor screens. So things have got to change.

Synchestra by The Devin Townsend Band (cover image)But first, the song rises to a crescendo with Devin screeching, “Oh, thank you . . . thank you!” (Yes, screeching—I believe this is what Devin calls his “castrated cat sound” voice.) And now we’re ready for that descent into the darkness of the woods. Immediately, the song transitions into what we’ll call the chorus (although it’s hard to think of a chorus when the song doesn’t follow anything like a traditional verse-chorus structure generally):

Paralyzed, terrorized,
In my eyes I’ve always fallen
End this line, endless lie
Endlessly but still I’m falling

As positive and reassuring as the buildup has been, we now see the narrative identity fractured and insecure. As a writer—songwriter, or any type of artist—this message hits home. No matter how well we think we’re doing, no matter what evidence of success or what support we might have, there always seems to be that inside voice telling us we’re a fraud, we’re failing—falling

To drive the point home, the next line, standing alone and fractured, is “Break me away from my I.” Identity fails. We watch ourselves from the outside. We’re paralyzed and terrified.

It’s at this point (about the 4:40 mark) that the song breaks down and returns, however briefly, to the quiet opening notes. This time there’s more urgency, driven by power from the rhythm section, so we know we’re working back up to a frenzy. Devin also whispers a few lines here, although my ears aren’t good enough to make out more than a few words. (Anyone with better hearing or sure knowledge of what is said here, please let me know.)

When we return to the lyrics, it’s the chorus again, although with the words slightly altered:

End this line, endless lie
Endlessly so pixillate me

Additionally, as they run through this section twice, there’s a layering of vocals and instruments so that we have an aural representation of the pixilation, the fracturing, that the lyrics are pointing us to. It’s almost like you’re listening to three different songs at once—a beautiful cacophony. (Of course, it’s precisely this sort of cacophony that I’m forced to turn up louder every time I hear it. And which drives my wife crazy. And the cats. And possibly the neighbors.)

At the end, the music returns once again to the simple deep guitar and vocalization, to sort of calm you down over the last minute of the song. Just before that, however, the final lyric provides one of the greatest puzzles:

It’s this hope . . . that gives us

Yes? Gives us what? Hope? Hope gives us hope? That doesn’t sound right. Or does it? The point is, it’s like he’s going to solve the problem of this identity fracture—it lies in hope; hope gives us something. But he leaves us hanging, never telling us what the answer is. More frustration!

We might look beyond this song to the wider album of Synchestra for an answer. But the next song is “Judgement,” and if we as artist are having an identity crisis, judgment is probably something we’d wish to avoid. No help there. I should point out that overall, Synchestra does end with a joyous, uplifting sound. But to get there, it travels through some dark and mirky paths, which are presented through rough-edged guitars, hard drums, and dark lyrics.

So that’s my reading of “Pixillate,” words and music working together to form meaning. (And no, I don’t know why he’s spelled the word incorrectly. An accident? Part of the thematic relevance of pixilation? He’s Canadian; maybe just one of their quirky spellings?) You might have another interpretation, of course, and feel free to share if so.

Until today, I hadn’t closely examined this song. Yet now that I do, I can see how the song has a thematic relevance to my life at the moment—which probably explains why I’ve been drawn back to it so often in recent weeks, even if unconsciously. I believe that’s what great art—or music, or literature—will do: speak to our soul directly, without the need of cognizant translation. Well, that’s my theory, anyway. Any takers?

Follow B. K. Winstead on Twitter at @bkwins

Advertisements

7 thoughts on ““Pixillate”: Fractured Identity & the Power of Art

  1. c2london

    Reminds me a bit of King Crimson. “I I believe that’s what great art–or music, or literature will do: speak to our soul directly, without the need of cognizant translation.” My thought as I was reading this; that the observer/reader/listener brings his or her own experience to the meaning of the piece, and sometimes the reaction to the work has more to do with the reactor than to the work itself.

    For the record, strident guitars notwithstanding, I rather like this piece, although I doubt it would be easy for me to come to the same conclusions as to meaning that you do. One problem being that I can’t, on one listen, make out many or any of the words.

    Like

    Reply
    1. bkwins Post author

      I agree completely that we bring our own experience to the reading of any work; it’s inevitable. But I also think that it’s a little hard to read something that’s completely not there. If you’re reading carefully, you’ve got textual evidence for your interpretation. I also think you can get into some interesting discussions here around author’s intent vs. reader’s experience–they certainly don’t have to match.

      Anyway, glad you found some pleasure in the music (strident guitars notwithstanding). And remember, I didn’t come to my reading on just one listen, in which case I would never have understood the lyrics either. (In fact, I had to look them up online.)

      Like

      Reply
  2. c2london

    I was pretty sure you’d listened to the piece more than once. So, with reading, does one have to read a piece more than once? I think it is interesting to see what one gets out of second or third reading, and probably great literature can stand the test of multiple readings. (This does not include critiques of work in progress; that’s a different animal.) I’ve always made the assumption that books/movies are made for one reading, extra readings being optional except when you’re studying a piece. Music, though, I assume is made for multiple listenings. Maybe this isn’t the normal. I’m going to have to explore what it means to be someone who reads/watches/listens once vs someone who engages in multiple rereadings, etc.

    Like

    Reply
  3. cryptictown

    That’s an interesting subject–rereading and rewatching and relistening. Of course, short pieces are easier to come back to again and again, like most music. And you can listen to music while doing other things, which makes it even easier. I love rewatching my favorite films but have only reread a handful of books. I have found that I love rereading my favorite books, gaining a deeper connection to them. But it does take several to many hours to do this, when you could be reading something new. However, I have no qualms about watching a favorite film again when I could be watching something I’ve never seen. And, maybe I’m in the minority, but I often remember little about a film after I’ve only seen it once. Six months later, I can’t even give a decent synopsis.

    Like

    Reply
    1. bkwins Post author

      I’m with you–terrible memory. I can remember I liked something but not remember the details, and that goes for books and movies. Maybe that’s why I return to them. For music, I believe it’s definitely intended to be experienced repeatedly. But for any form, it seems that the better the work, the more rewarding it will be to return to it. That’s the basis of why we “study” literature, or film, or art. But I don’t think it’s just about studying; on a re-reading or a re-watching, you’re able to see things that wouldn’t be evident on an initial experience–elements of character or theme that might that you can easily overlook the first time, connections that you might have missed, and so forth. All this certainly applies to music as well, although there aren’t typically characters.

      Like

      Reply
  4. Gotdam

    The lyrics for the hard to understand whispered parts are, I believe (live version from By a Thread),
    I leave you an eternal preasent
    everything’s an infinite vibration beyond us all free your soul
    and we feel together as one
    That we are collectively a super entity

    I could be wrong, but I think that’s how it goes. To me, this kind of shifts the meaning a little bit. I believe the song is less about losing yourself in a dark way, and more about ALLOWING yourself to lose your SELF to become more connected to the everything. It seems like the vocals by Anneke near the beggining are the voice of this one interconnected entity telling him it is OK to let go. The paralyzing fear he speaks of is the fear of the unknown. He needs to “hold on tight to you” to have the straight to make the change.
    So that’s my ranty opinion. Let me know what you all think. Agree? Disagree?
    Favorite song by a mile.

    Like

    Reply
    1. bkwins Post author

      Thanks for the reply! I like your interpretation and I’ll have to consider it all again in light of these lyrics. And yes, this song remains one of my favorites–it still gets my blood up every time I hear it.

      Like

      Reply

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s