“The Factory,” Godspeed You! Black Emperor, and the Art of Deviation
Letitia Elizabeth Landon’s 1835 poem “The Factory” begins with the following two stanzas:
There rests a shade above yon town,
A dark funereal shroud:
‘Tis not the tempest hurrying down,
‘Tis not a summer cloud.
The smoke that rises on the air
Is as a type and sign;
A shadow flung by the despair
Within those streets of thine.
The atmosphere created evokes images of dirt, of filth, of misery. The remainder of the poem details factory life, and the life of the children working in those factories. L.E.L mourns the death of childhood, crying that childhood ought to be a “lovely time,” and “such should childhood ever be.” Another word that could be used to describe the mood set by this poem is apocalyptic. L.E.L goes on to describe “[W]eeds darkening on…bitter soil,” “Moloch’s sacrifice,” and “a low appalling cry” rising on “the morning wind,” among other things. The poem serves as a searing condemnation of the Victorian practice of child labour, and what that practice microcosmically suggests about Victorian society.
What this evoked for me was a song called “The Dead Flag Blues,” by the Canadian post-rock band Godspeed You! Black Emperor, off of their 1997 album F♯ A♯ ∞ (Pronounced as F-sharp A-sharp Infinity). The lyrics of the song are as follows, (you can find the song here):
The car is on fire, and there’s no driver at the wheel
And the sewers are all muddied with a thousand lonely suicides
And a dark wind blows
The government is corrupt
And we’re on so many drugs
With the radio on and the curtains drawn
We’re trapped in the belly of this horrible machine
And the machine is bleeding to death
The sun has fallen down
And the billboards are all leering
And the flags are all dead at the top of their poles
It went like this:
The buildings tumbled in on themselves
Mothers clutching babies
Picked through the rubble
And pulled out their hair
The skyline was beautiful on fire
All twisted metal stretching upwards
Everything washed in a thin orange haze
I said, “Kiss me, you’re beautiful –
These are truly the last days”
You grabbed my hand
And we fell into it
Like a daydream
Or a fever
We woke up one morning and fell a little further down
For sure it’s the valley of death
I open up my wallet
And it’s full of blood
The mood of this song is undoubtedly similar to L.E.L’s poem. While it doesn’t focus as much on a specific negative aspect of society (i.e factories) or the group that aspect affects (i.e children), the apocalyptic mood is still there. Buildings topple in on themselves; skylines are beautiful with fire. The machine we are allegedly trapped in is bleeding to death. There is no singing; all of the lyrics are spoken. The music itself is dark, ambient, and melancholic, with little cohesive structure. Wailing strings in minor keys and reverberating acoustic guitars dominate the soundscape.
The genre of this song, post-rock, is known for its attempt to break away from the standard norms of conventional rock music. It was an escape from traditional forms. The name itself suggests this. Post-rock. After rock. There is a break from the standard 4/4 time signature, composing a song structured in intro-verse-chorus-verse-outro fashion. All of these norms are deviated from, creating a sound bizarre and otherworldly. The genre of L.E.L’s poem, the ballad, was one that was in its own way a deviation from the norms of poetry at the time. “The Factory,” rather than being an escape from traditional forms, is a return to a traditional form.
Both of these works, then, reflect an anger, cynicism, and melancholy towards the norms of their time period, and this reflection is itself reflected through a break in normative compositional structures (be they musical or poetic). Both works also criticize their societies for their passiveness: GY!BE’s lyrics state that “The government is corrupt/And we’re on so many drugs/With the radio on and the curtains drawn.” L.E.L.’s poem says that “We read of Moloch’s sacrifice,/We sicken at the name,/And seem to hear the infant cries –/And yet we do the same.” Both also reflect the focuses of their society: the factory is one of the primary symbols of the Victorian era, and a country’s flag is one of the primary symbols of the more nationalistic tendencies evolved in world society over the past two decades.
Just as the anxieties and existential fears of Letitia Elizabeth Landon’s time manifest themselves in her poem “The Factory,” describing a slow shift towards ostensible apocalypse, so too does Godspeed You! Black Emperor’s “The Dead Flag Blues” portray that very same anxiety felt by the lyricist towards our society, both in the lyrics of the song as well as the compositional form of the song.