Jesse Rifkin has spiritual concerns. As if you couldn’t tell from the name (The Wailing Wall, also known as the Western Wall, is the holy remnant of an ancient temple in Israel, long a place of pilgrimage and prayer for Jews and, according to some, the site of the gates of heaven), the music of The Wailing Wall trades in love and death, faith and its absence, transcendence and exile. Rifkin takes a position in a long line of smart, thoughtful troubadors with acoustic guitars and a penchant for sonic exploration and biblical references (Leonard Cohen, Bill Callahan, Jeff Mangum). Like those songwriters he manages to turn pop songcraft into something with gravity and holiness, low art into high.
There is something ancient about Rifkin’s music that belies his young age (23, if you’re counting). Even if I’d never met him I could have instantly told you upon hearing his music that he’s the kind of person my mother refers to as an old soul. Listening to Hospital Blossoms (his first full length, absolutely tingly and beautiful and available for free [what a deal!] at jdubrecords.org/wailingwall) one hears the eternity in his songs, which are not sad but sorrowful, not happy but joyful. They are like prayers, instantly memorable and built on melodies that sound as if they were not written but summoned whole from some other world, the way they did it back in the age of the muses, when the artist was merely a vessel for divine truth. This feeling of age grounds the music so much that the melodies can be stretched and dragged, just like old folk songs, without ever losing their strength. Often you’ll hear male and female voices snaking around the same melody, never quite singing it outright, never quite in rhythmic unison. It is powerful because true beauty lives in the fleeting and half-hidden, in the peripheral glimpse, something so few young musicians understand.
And the lyrics! Oh, the lyrics. Full of resonant images like the “eager, eager earth” awaiting bodies to fill it, Hospital Blossoms is an album of loss and struggle and drama. It seems to revolve around the illness and death of the narrator’s mother, but it tends to swirl mothers, sisters and lovers together in a Mangum-esque way, resulting in one surreal, perfect, mythic feminine form, who is also of course hopelessly lost, though there are hints of possible redemption throughout. On “Floral Park”, Rifkin sings “when I see my darling cry I ask the good lord why she has to suffer,” which makes for a cruel juxtaposition with the recurring lyric, addressed to the sick lover, “don’t you know that God above looks out for you?” Because of the way we listen to lyrics, catching a bit at a time over the course of many listens, the latter sounds at first listen like a declaration of faith in a troubled time, yet on repeated listens you begin to catch the whole shape of the song, and there is a moment at which the line transforms in your mind from calm serenity to bitter irony, that moment being just devastating.
Beyond all the quantifiably lovely things about Hospital Blossoms though, there is something else. It’s in the moment in Dear Mother when Rifkin’s vocals step forward into clarity after the scratchy, hiss-ridden quality of the first verse. It’s all over “Hospital Blossom” the song, especially in the move from the propulsive clicking 3/4 of the verses into the swaying 6/8 of the choruses, with their honey sweet harmonies and deeply sorrowful lyrics about longing for death in order to reunite with a lost love in heaven. It is almost by definition impossible to put into words but it’s important, so I’m going to try. As someone who deeply loves music (and plays it), I hear an unbelievable number of songs, many of them featuring the same five chords, the same strumming pattern on the same acoustic guitar, the same diatonic melodies. Yet in some of these songs there is some kind of magic that lifts them above all other songs. It feels like pins and needles and it quickens my heart. I’ve heard it in everything from Henry Threadgill (“Silver and Gold, Baby, Silver and Gold”) to CCR (“Lodi”) to Al Green (“I’m a Ram”) to The Walkmen (“The New Year”), and I hear it in The Wailing Wall.
David Foster Wallace once spoke of an epiphanic “click” he heard while reading the very best fiction (he took the word from a Yeats poem which features a line about “the click of a well-made box”), something instinctually felt but impossible to explain, and something that is curiously absent from some of the most outwardly skillful writing (Updike, in his example). To steal another phrase from Wallace, The Wailing Wall “clicks like a fucking geiger counter.” They always make those tired old chords sound like something you’ve never heard before.
The band’s Ampeater single is no exception to this rule, featuring a bouncy and wonderfully catchy non-album tune entitled “The Words We Choose” and an alternate version of the lovely and dark “Hospital Blossom”. “The Words We Choose” is the danciest thing I’ve ever heard come out of The Wailing Wall, but it works far better than what you are probably imagining in your head right now after all that talk about death and spirituality. The casio and handclap percussion and accordion drones that kick off the song immediately call to mind Paul Simon’s “Graceland” and the way the vocals are buried neck-deep in the huge swells of accordion chords would make me want to say something like acoustic shoegaze if that weren’t kind of thing that makes me want to slap music writers, so never mind. Anyway, try not to bob your head up and down. Also try not to walk around for the rest of the day singing “Where has my heart gone? Whoa-oh-oh.” It’s impossible. The moment (1:28) when the banjo and glockenspiel and harmonica enter and the tambourine starts playing full-time instead of doubling the backbeat sounds to me like the sun coming out from behind the clouds. In other words, it clicks.
The much sparser demo version of “Hospital Blossom” drops the percussion and brings the vocals to the fore, swathed in ghostly singing saw. The lyrics about highways running down wrists seem to nod to Leonard Cohen’s “Dress Rehearsal Rag”, and the stark arrangement illustrates just how well the song stands up even without the dramatic arrangement that fills out the album version. The melody fits so naturally over the simple fingerpicking (the exact pattern that Cohen uses on every single waltz) and the almost classical sounding rhyme of the lyrics is well-served by the exposure. “I know there’s no light found in songs that I sing,” he sings, and I only hope he knows how untrue that is.