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.
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):
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