Why we all love Explosions in the Sky.
Before Explosions in the Sky, some background:
In June of 1838, Ralph Waldo Emerson, writing in his journal, observed, "A man must have aunts and cousins, must buy carrots and turnips, must have barn and woodshed, must go to market and to the blacksmith's shop, must saunter and sleep and be inferior and silly." This is transcendentalism at its most practical, intended for people who, unlike Emerson's moody disciple, Thoreau, don't have the time to sit by a pond and complain about society. Were that the case, we'd all be living in Portland, Ore., making Bright Eyes records. Instead, we live on the Internet, which is why this quote is oddly relevant, as we seem to have, unconsciously, absorbed its practical lesson.
It is undeniable that, in order to exist, one must take part in routine activities. It is also undeniable that we seek dividends on our time investments, usually—unless you're God-fearing—in the form of existential meaning. Many of us, several times a day, through Facebook status updates, alert vast networks of friends, family, and random acquaintances that we've just "eaten a stack of pancakes!" or "kicked a pigeon." This kind of self-celebration annoys many, but I've never understood this brand of "who cares?" logic. Yes, it's awfully vain to assume anyone cares about the trivial details of your early afternoon, but it's also stupid to disregard those details for their quotidian nature. After all, 90 percent of life is spent eating pancakes and kicking pigeons—that's a sizeable portion of one's overall narrative.
Reality is generally a modest affair, and that we perpetually seek out ways to transcend the commonplace is a testament to our collective depth and will to persevere, not a symptom of our narcissism. Social scientists, often negatively, suggest that we increasingly believe life is like a movie, and numerous technological advancements have turned life into a movie. This, however, is a positive development, and one of these technological advancements, finally, is Explosions in the Sky.
For several years now, I've tried to understand this band's place in popular culture, an endeavor that is pretty ambitious, inasmuch as they're basically an anomaly. Their songs, over the course of five albums, average out to roughly eight minutes apiece and lack vocals or an obvious pulse to which a listener might anchor himself. This alone should pose a major problem; the eight-minute time frame, barring jazz, is typically reserved for men singing about patriotic baked dishes or undomesticated winged creatures, and Explosions deals with neither of those beguiling topics.
In fact, Explosions doesn't really deal with topics at all. Not overtly anyway—you need lyrics for that. Instead they create soundscapes, consisting of flying notes and shots of noise which take off into the stratosphere, burst, and return to earth gently, leaving behind traces of color like fireworks. I suppose this is why they're often characterized as "post-rock," a term that implies the cosmos. Just read their album titles in slow succession: How Strange, Innocence; Those Who Tell the Truth Shall Die, Those Who Tell the Truth Shall Live Forever; The Earth Is Not a Cold Dead Place; The Rescue; All of a Sudden I Miss Everyone; and, most recently, Take Care, Take Care, Take Care. See what I mean?
Mike Spies is on the editorial staff of The New Yorker.
Photograph of Ralph Waldo Emerson.