The experience of looking down from a great height is intoxicating. After all, why do people climb mountains, if not to look down from a great height? (Unless they’re really into sweat and thin air.) Whether literal or figurative, depths are fascinating.
I recall submerging in Lake Chelan’s limpid green waters, ten feet down, and looking out through the cold clear waters as my heartbeat rang in my ears. I recall standing on top of a bridge, peering down at the flowing river far below, and leaping on a sudden whim, even as my breath caught in my throat. It’s a strange fascination…not exactly a death wish, but rather some odd desire to know exactly what depths we can plumb.
And of course, in Mad Men, those depths are nearly all metaphorical. Don Draper has descended to the depths of depression and depravity before, but this season most heavily underlined those themes than any prior. It opened with Don reading Dante’s Inferno on a beach, just to ram that point home. Even though Don grappled with crushing depression and alcoholism in season four, and prior seasons saw suicides and deaths, this season was even darker, not merely in its portrayal of a nation reeling in the dark late 60s, but also because the darkness pervaded every area of Don’s life.
He tried to be an attentive father and husband in season five, while balancing professional demands, and yet he wasn’t able to pull it off. Throughout the sixth season, Don failed his marriage, failed his children, failed in his work, and even failed in his latest extramarital fling. And yet, in the penultimate episodes, he had to explore the depths even further. Don had to blow work off and take his colleagues’ sacrifices and his place for granted. He had to betray his friend and canoodle with Mrs. Rosen once more in an attempt to rekindle his savoir faire, and consequently fail his daughter more grievously than ever before.
These dark depths are seductive, especially when lived vicariously. It’s no coincidence Mad Men and Breaking Bad, two of the most powerful and compelling shows on TV right now, both explore evil in a very realistic world. Vince Gilligan and Matthew Weiner know that building a narrative in which we are slowly, almost blindly led into seeing exactly how easy it is to do terrible things, into the depths each of us is capable of sinking to, is how to play to the intoxication of depths.
It took several listens (heck, I’m listening to it right now) for me to realize that was Yeezus‘ appeal also. It’s a different kind of depth; after all, it’s not as if Kanye is capturing his darkness. Rather, what Kanye West seems to be doing with this hasty, intriguing record is plumbing the depths of his imagination, creativity, and audience.
Why did he rush the album through production, and throw in vocals haphazardly? Some critics have guessed that the sound matters the most, or that it’s simply Kanye’s experimentation or boredom with the radio and his own public image. I think some of those are close to the truth, but what’s even more important is that the haphazard nature of the album speaks more to someone who’s rooting out the closet just to find what’s in there.
Tracks like ‘I am a God’ and ‘Blood on the Leaves’ showcase West’s self-absorption at its most self-aggrandizing, and also his deep urge to address racism…while also conflating such issues with his own past heartbreak. He then mines obscure sounds and throws it all together in Yeezus (which really is best listened to as a whole album rather than singles) in an exploration of his creative depths and those most potent, latent, rooted themes that have pervaded all his work.
Rummaging around in the depths is what also makes Vampire Weekend’s latest album, Modern Vampires of the City, intriguing. These themes are extremely religious and relationship-centric. ‘Ya Hey’ and ‘Diane Young’ focus on heavy Biblical themes and doomed relationships, tying together philosophical musings along with the fundamental realities religion grapples with. The depths may not be ego-centric and culture-heavy as those in Yeezus, but they are creative, personal, and spiritual depths all the same.
In the above link Koenig speaks of how he sees this latest album as dealing with more adult issues, which is virtually the essence of true depths. Once you’re a grown-up, the amount of damage you can inflict on not only yourself but others is astronomically greater than the flailing of even the most petulant ten-year-old. Once you’re old enough to grasp how far you can fall is precisely when the depths become most fascinating.
Another critic (the name escapes me, sadly) mused that Yeezus is Kanye’s clean-up record, his method of dealing with all the issues of previous albums, before he embarks on fatherhood. I have no idea whatsoever, but all I know is that the album sounds like someone determinedly creating a meal with whatever was left in his pantry that looked good.
But in the end, the depths are most fascinating because they are what we hope to eventually ascend from to the heights of our dreams. The sixth season concluded with Don’s realization that he simply couldn’t achieve what he wanted if he built everything on a lie (just a snippet of excellent analysis of Mad Men by Todd VanDerWerff which was invaluable to my understanding of the season). Yeezus ends with a cheery chorus and repeated assurance of “Uh-huh honey”, while Modern Vampires of the City overall packages its most disturbing lyrics in its second-catchiest tune, ‘Unbelievers’.
Plunging into the depths wouldn’t be nearly as fun if we couldn’t climb back up on the bridge, or eventually kick our way to the surface, and climb back out into the sun.
(All images are reproduced from non-licensed material, I believe. My dad’s a lawyer; I was trained to exercise due diligence.)