REVIEW: Dead Can Dance - Anastasis

Van Gogh: They're not my favorite flower.
Amy: You don't like sunflowers?
Van Gogh: No, it's not that I don't like them. I find them complex. Always somewhere between living and dying. Half-human as they turn to the sun. A little disgusting. But you know, they are a challenge.
The Doctor: And one I'm pretty sure you'll rise to.

~ Doctor Who, “Vincent and the Doctor”

A year ago, we planted sunflowers along the side of our house. We watched, almost in real time, as they grew into a neat row, arranged, in accordance with the sunlight they received, like grandchildren in an old Christmas photo: shortest at one end, tallest at the other, the remaining filling in as height dictated. The tallest flower grew - and grew. In the end, it was over ten feet tall. We became quite attached to them, our sunflowers. The largest one in particular - its head bowed, heavy with seed - seemed to have been granted a soul.

A love of sunflowers is not like a love of other flowers. You love other flowers for their color, form, scent. Sunflowers - as Doctor Who’s Van Gogh observed - are always “somewhere between living and dying ... Half-human....” And so they are the perfect cover image for an album by the recently-reanimated ex-80s now-post-goth band Dead Can Dance. Especially for an album called “Anastasis” - or, to translate, “Resurrection.”

But the arresting image on DCD’s new cover is not of the sunny sunflower, but a black-and-white photo of a field of dead sunflowers, awaiting their own resurrection. (We hope they were of the perennial, rather than the annual, variety ...) The image, coupled with the album’s title, sets the stage for a listening that is rewarded by repetition, and only fully heard when liberated from the headphones of MP3 players and streamed through real speakers on a decent stereo system. There, the layers of sound that animate the album are revealed. Without them, lifeless, the songs fall flat.

In short, this isn’t your standard alt/indie/world/rock album. It is not neatly separable into “singles” to be downloaded in iTunes and heard in bits. In fact, the old adage about the whole being greater than the sum of its parts seems to fit. There is no obvious stand-out track here. (“Opium” comes closest to sticking in your head like a hit single, but, arguably, it is not the best track on the album.) Nor are the songs pithy pop. The shortest of the eight songs clocks in at 5:45 (with the longest stretching to 8:02). After 16 years of hibernation (the last DCD album came out in 1996 - back when Apple was the unsuccessful computer company and iPods were the stuff of science fiction), the band is certainly entitled to take its time in telling its music-stories.

On first listening - to be honest, even with repeated listenings - the album comes across as “his,” and “hers” - not “theirs.” With one exception, the songs divide fairly neatly into Brendan Perry’s (1,4,6,8) and Lisa Gerrard’s (2,3,5). Perry’s pieces come closer to DCD’s ‘80s goth sound. Gerrard’s are very much in the style of her 1998 “Duality” album with Pieter Bourke: North African/Middle Eastern, versus Perry’s distinctly Western cast. Instruments float between genres and songs, but still, the stylistic divide is evident. Also on that first listening, Perry’s lyrics (we presume they’re Perry’s – but it’s possible the pair co-wrote the words Perry sings), though sometimes thought-provoking, often feel lumbering and new-age-y. Alas, they still lumber on, even after repeated listenings. But patterns do begin to emerge from the layering of images, instruments, and musical themes ...

The album begins with Perry’s “Children of the Sun.” Sunflowers are woven into the song’s chorus, as well as into the sun-children’s hair. (This does, of course, mean they are decapitated sunflowers ...) It is a song of birth, renewal - an overture to the album itself: “our journey has begun.” Just over 5 minutes into the song, Perry turns from “children of the sun” to the night’s broken children - and, after he laments their irreparable damage, the song changes tone. With under 2 minutes to spare, we’re smack in the middle of the theme music to a Bond film. One can easily imagine vocals by Shirley Bassey herself. It may not have been the band’s intention, but the shift tends to elicit large grins on our part.

“Children” fades out to the slow beat of a bass drum and is followed by the Gerrard-centric “Anabasis.” It seems the Greek word anabasis - yes, Wiki is our friend - can refer both to a military expedition and to the course of a disease - from start to end. Given the classic connection between the “dance of the dead” and the black death of the Middle Ages, the disease interpretation seems viable. The song creeps in gently, building in layers that include Gerrard’s instrument-voice. The lyric-like sounds she produces may be of her own making, but, even if beyond our verbal understanding, they are a kind of instrumental, lyrical poetry. A bass drum again - electronic? - takes the song out. This time, it sounds like a heartbeat. A heartbeat that suddenly stops. This may substantiate the “disease” interpretation of the song’s name. Then again, it could be the ending of a military campaign as well. Here’s a third interpretation: it’s both. War and disease have been coupled on a few historic occasions ... both literally and figuratively. Why not here, too?

Gerrard has the third song, “Agape,” and the fifth, which strays from the Greek dictionary with “Kiko.” Between them is Perry’s most lyrically interesting piece, “Amnesia.” There are references to the losers of battles and the importance of memory. Mnemosyne, the Greek goddess of memory, is invoked. Mnemosyne was also the mother of the muses and therefore the font of civilization. The layering of themes continues.

One song breaks from the his/hers pattern. “Return of The She-King” has a distinctly Celtic feel. It opens with the sound of bagpipes and features Gerrard’s haunting voice. The music is sweeping; it swells. Yes, we use these adjectives intentionally. For, about 5 minutes in, horns heralding the arrival, Perry’s voice enters. He sings in her wordless language, but in his own style. After a brief pause, Gerrard returns, giving voice to her style. Melody and countermelody, until now separate, blend … transcend. Now that’s a climax. The music fades out, and ...

What? There’s another song? Didn’t that feel like an ending to you? Perhaps that’s the point. Just when you think it’s over: resurrection. (Even if, on this occasion, resurrection comes with the particularly clunky lyrics of that final track “All In Good Time.”) What rises from the dust? Dead sunflowers indeed.