Making good relationships is hard, but making good art is arguably harder. So what happens when you try to do both with the same person? Sometimes the result is a long and fruitful collaboration; sometimes it’s Dylan and Joni. Perhaps it is due to our acceptance of women’s equality and gay rights, but these days it seems that collaborative couples crop up all over the place. Mike Daisey and Jean-Michele Gregory, whom I covered in this column some months ago, are husband and wife. Tia Lessin and Carl Deal, makers of Trouble The Water, hailed by The New York Times as the best American documentary in years, are partners in film and in life. Many bands involve core creative artists who are either married or lovers, and even a few visual artists collaborate primarily with their partners.
Recently, two very different artistic teams have birthed art into the world. The Rosebuds’ fourth album, Life Like, was released last month on Merge Records, while British artists Gilbert and George have mounted a large retrospective at the Brooklyn Museum of Art. One is a rock band, the other a conceptual duo, but they are both couples who make art that reveals some of the benefits and pitfalls to being couples who make art together.
Some bands are song bands, some bands are album bands, very, very few bands are career bands, where in order to properly evaluate any part of their catalogue, it has to be put in the context of their work in general. The Rosebuds, a husband-wife team from North Carolina, with a new album out on Merge Records, are one such band. Ivan Howard and Kelly Crisp met in college, moved to Raleigh, and soon thereafter started putting out records. In five years, they’ve released four albums and one EP, and carved out a reputation for combining consistently good-if-not-great song writing with a protean stylistic restlessness. With the exception of their latest album, Life Like, their records sound nothing like each other yet clearly are the work of the same group, and considering the albums together reveals new resonances not present on a first listen.
A number of different factors contribute to this, not least of which is the way that their albums seem to comment obliquely on their relationship without putting it front and center. Their first album, Make Out, combines a love of the Nuggets collection with a kind of irrational exuberance. You can feel the joy of the newlywed screaming out of songs like Kicks in the Schoolyard with its Monkees organ line, pounding tom-toms, and Howard yelling about boys and girls having fun while listening to music. It’s not about getting married to your college sweetheart, but it’s filled with the joy we associate with new love, and the album is deeply steeped in late ’60s power-pop guitars and throbbing electric organs.
From this starting point, things only get darker. Birds Make Good Neighbors (which still remains my favorite of their albums) begins an ongoing theme that becomes a primary concern across the rest of their career: a relationship (or member of a relationship) who is threatened in some way by the outside world. The album announces its new vibe with the first song — drums tap out a heart beat behind sparse piano chords and vocal reverb that makes it sound like it was a recorded in a church. Although the pop influences are still revealed in Howard and Crisp’s penchant for singalong nonsense vocals of oohs and ahs, they’re layered over a summation of life that leaves behind bottomless joy forever: “And we get by / And we tell ourselves, one more time / We get by / And we brace ourselves and hold our hands and fight.”
This continues throughout the album. Leaves Do Fall, which introduces a pounding folk-rock sea shanty into their vocabulary, trades verses between Howard and Crisp about a love lost at sea who cannot return until winter comes, while his beloved worries that he has died. Outnumbered, which shines with Feelies-esque guitar work, is about steeling yourself for battle against ghosts. The outnumbered are a couple: “Me and you and you and me.”
Birds Make Good Neighbors also introduces the symbolic vocabulary that The Rosebuds have expanded in each album. The album is populated with birds (finches and blue birds especially) that dispense musical advice, ghosts, armies, and a wildcat. Night of the Furies jumps genres to ’80s post-disco and is overtly a concept album about a love affair between a villager and a Fury (as in the mythical Greek avenging angels) who meet when she and her sisters come to destroy his town. This concept again continues the thematic exploration of living out life with your partner facing a threatening world, and takes it into even darker territory. Death haunts this album at every turn — supposedly they conceived it to calm themselves while trapped in a storm — as do themes of escaping from danger (I Better Run), insanity (Lights Went Dim), and keeping close in a dangerous world (Hold On To This Coat).
Furies is a bit of a frustrating album. It has some of their best songs on it, particularly Silja Line, which breaks from the synth-drenched dance-rock of the earlier tracks to tell a story of a life at sea that slowly builds to a haunting sea shanty about trying to move forward from one’s own past. It’s also a song about Vikings and meeting with the King of Sweden, thus attacking the issues through symbol and tangential storytelling. At the same time, the disco lines present on many of the songs move them in a frankly embarrassing direction, robbing the songs of their urgency.
Life Like, their newest offering, is almost impossible to consider on its own terms. For one thing, it’s the first of their records not to explicitly break new musical ground for the band. Written during a self-imposed hiatus from rock music (whoops), Life Like synthesizes its forbears into a new, gloomier sound reminiscent of Echo and the Bunnymen and The Psychedlic Furs. The album also expands on The Rosebuds’ well-stocked symbol larder, adding a square-dancing Devil (that is also a metaphor for US politics somehow), military figures, baby catfish, foxes, and a demon boy.
It’s unclear what all of this says about Ivan Howard and Kelly Crisp as a couple, and it’s reductive to evaluate an artist’s work based solely on its relationship to their personal life. One of the joys of seeing them in concert is witnessing their insane levels of love for each other and joy in each other’s company; the time I saw them at Bowery Ballroom, Howard injured his knee abducting Crisp off the stage at the end of their last encore. It is undeniable, however, that the realities of making it in this world — of surviving and thriving and being in love in the midst of the scary-ass times outside of our windows — has shaped The Rosebuds’ artistic output. Without their marriage, they wouldn’t be the artists they are, and even though (unlike, say, “Mates of State”) they rarely actually reference each other or their marriage in their songs, it filters out in a private, symbolic vocabulary and the way each album’s tone is shaped.
Few other artists have developed as private a symbolic vocabulary as Gilbert and George, the British “sculptors” whose touring retrospective has touched down in Brooklyn, for the time being. A couple of art school sweethearts who began making work together in the 1960s, Gilbert and George dress alike, are never seen apart (or in casual wear), complete each other’s sentences, and have forgone their last names. Over the decades, they’ve become best known for their giant murals exploring various themes through photographs broken up by a heavy, black, grid pattern.
The grid format was an artistic choice born out of necessity. In the old days, photography development equipment and paper only came in certain sizes. Getting images to the size that Gilbert and George required meant blowing up the image to size and printing segments of it on individual pieces of paper. Those individual pages are then tightly framed in black and assembled together to create the final piece.
The results are beautiful on the page and massively striking in person. They resemble stained glass windows for some kind of new postmodern church. Gilbert and George explore their themes using images collected almost entirely within the neighborhood that they live in. Many of them feature young street toughs against a wall. One series features the artists’ feces and semen. Religious (and not always Judeo-Christian) references are sprinkled throughout their oeuvre, as are images of nature and trees in particular. They appear in almost every single piece, frequently with blank expressions aimed at the viewer. Their early work is in black and white. Eventually, they added yellow and red.
Thematically, they’ve rarely referenced their relationship in their work except at the very beginning. Theretrospective begins in a rotunda bedecked in large charcoal drawings. The drawings are on taped-together pieces of paper forming a grid, and on them, Gilbert and George stroll through idyllic nature scenes while theoretical assertions about the nature of art, artists, and love appear at the bottom. Other than that and their own recurrence in their work, their relationship isn’t referenced. Instead, viewers are treated to a surprisingly large thematic portfolio that explores nature, various emotional states, sex, death, mortality, and even terrorism.
If you’ve never seen a Gilbert and George work in person, you should see the exhibit, should it come to your area, but prepare to be frustrated. Gilbert and George designed the retrospective themselves and, as a result, it lacks narrative through line or cohesion. Neither a chronological walk-though of their evolution as artists nor an exploration of themes and motifs within their work, it’s hard to know what to make of the order they derived for the show. It must make some kind of private sense to them; perhaps they liked the way various pictures looked next to each other on the wall, but it does not educate the viewer about their work or help you get to know them better.
There is also too much emphasis on their later work. Computer technology has allowed them to achieve very easily what used to be quite labor-intensive, but this has come at a price. An image on a negative blown up to 12′x18′ loses resolution and becomes fuzzy and rough. This roughness adds a decidedly human element to their work, which is lacking in the soft-textured, clean, almost robotic output of the past decade. Like with today’s blockbuster films, the more they use computer effects to achieve their desired results, the less-striking and more ordinary those results become. Yes, Gilbert and George can make themselves look like three-eyed Hindu Gods, but so can my iSight.
Unlike The Rosebuds, the privacy of Gilbert and George’s world has come to resemble a hermetically sealed bubble. The two artists, who have always talked about wanting to draw the viewer in instead of push them away, have gotten more illegible as time has passed. It is as if the audience has been invited on a double date, only to discover the other couple is only interested in talking to themselves. As The Rosebuds’ songwriting shows, the audience does not need to understand everything on a concrete level to appreciate what’s going on, but we want some sense that we’re all eating dinner together.
Isaac Butler writes about theatre and politics for his blog, Parabasis.