Gogol Bordello's Perfect Song


Probably to its detriment, the phrase ‘Gogol Bordello’ falls out of the mouth with such pleasant assonance it feels (if you can feel semantic content) like a meaningless portmanteau: gogolbordello. Lost of course in transliteration is the intellectual heft of so strange a pairing of words; unlike the post-nothing obscurantism of, say, Neutral Milk Hotel or Archers of Loaf, Gogol Bordello articulates both an identity and, this is crucial, an ambition. If you want to get academic about it, coating Ukraine’s finest dramatist in a thick layer of cathouse scuzz arouses the postmodern habit of coupling the high and low brows in one place - postmodernity being a dandy movement for an outfit featuring a self-consciously ESL frontman, a virtuoso violinist, and (for chrissake) an accordion that somehow became the greatest live attraction on the planet. Which segues us back to their ambition: believe the genuinely good-natured Eugene Hutz that his band hoped to sneak Ukrainian (gypsy) culture into the US just as its namesake managed in Russia two centuries ago - kind of a contra-autoethnographic text, if you remain academic about it - and I think Hutz wants us to.

If you feel like plotting this kind of stuff commercially, then the aspirations promised by the name ‘Gogol Bordello’ are in a progressive state of realization: their albums chart a little (or a lot) higher every go round; they’ve inexplicably sidestepped the Pitchfork Interchange of Scores for Sales (PISS for short) to headline Warped Tour three times, Lollapalooza three times, and the Newport Folk Festival - with a change-up acoustic set no less; they sell out their own tours all over the world - and in so doing pick up weird noises seemingly wherever they hang around for more than a week: admixing Gogol with, for instance, Lizardi.

On the other hand, if you find Hutz’s aesthetic triumphs - specifically, his contributions to songwriting - sacrifice content in the pursuit of form, ask yourself how many songwriters might have otherwise honored the literary acumen of a national treasure like Gogol. The answer is probably none. Besides - until the unexpectedly and wonderfully literate Pura Vida Conspiracy (the subject of a later post) - words weren’t exactly the principle draw. Hutz’s lead (cataloged beautifully by critic Dan Weiss with: “…he doesn’t sing. he hosts, emcees, rants, improvs, bellows… hitting the notes is just a formality”) overwhelms most of what he might say; point: this uni-lingual die-hard can replicate every ragged invocation on the zero-English  ‘Santa Marinella’ before he could recall any of the lyrics to their most notable radio hit, “Start Wearing Purple.”

None of this is to say that Hutz is a bad lyricist. Super Taranta! is one of less than a dozen albums I’d call perfect, and it owes its singular texture of joyfully furious iconoclasm not merely to a culturefuck of foreign melody and liberal smatterings of noize, but also to an encompassing sense of warmth, intelligence, and wit. One of its many addictions? Alcohol - a non-single I rank anyway with the finest songs of the previous decade, and place alone as my personal favorite love song.

Excuse the pun, but the song’s only enhanced by its literal/metaphorical confluence of personification and mood: if the love of anything can be called bittersweet, its booze’s. Okay - so alcohol tastes bad, but we love and crave it anyway. Bitter/sweet: it’s obvious and we get it. But further than that, in casting alcohol as the lover scorned too hastily after an argument (read: a hangover) Hutz is able to overcome his subject’s insentience; he’s the one (presumably) on the phone after breaking up with alcohol, begging for alcohol’s forgiveness. The shades of love and hate in this arrangement are his solely to color: “And I’m sorry some of us / given you bad name / yeah oh yeah cause without you / nothing is the same / yeah oh yeah I miss you so / every time we break up / just to hit a higher notes / every time we make up.”

It is with profound insight (and risk) then that Hutz cedes so much of song’s authority to his love: we understand his plight in terms of the great and miserable things alcohol has done actively to him despite its insentience - a brilliant gesture implying the helplessness of an alcoholic determined to break it off: “you seen me walk,” “you seen me fall,” “who’s crawlin’ up my spine,’ ‘now you teach me how to rhyme,’ ‘just don’t stab me in the back,’ and ultimately he just wants “to thank you one more time for everything you’ve done.”

Intensifying this conceptual foreplay is, on close-listen, a habit of stark juxtaposition that recalls not just the dissonant ebb of the on-again-off-again romance, but also a hangover: the beautiful or the thrilling tempered later by the painful. Examples:

Eugene falls in love - but with witches. His head is held - not up high but together with stitches. He continually survives the impossible synthesis of her ‘lovely sieges.’ She acts the muse, and teaches him to rhyme - but he fears an inevitable consequence: namely that she will stab him in the back with “cartisol,” or a failing liver - a cliche-turned-punning Weezy should be envious to hear.

All of this rhetorical posturing might be for not if the song didn’t actually sound like a hangover. Sergey Ryabtsev and Yuri Lemeshev both mind their manners to draw and squeeze a painfully languid melody to foil a Hutz guitar that just can’t focus enough to settle on a tempo. And the moans coming (in less than discernible pattern) from Hutz and Ryabtsev don’t bother to harmonize - they’re satisfying enough as the aural in-between of the thrill of an angry orgasm and the wail of a hangover greeting the morning sun. There’s that habit of juxtaposition again - somehow in both form and content.

I find it difficult to imagine many more songs succeed in enacting a singular vision so thoroughly and self-reflexively - I statement I make with confidence because I’ve yet to hear any that’re better at it. This is the kind of thing some of us call literature. Since Nikolai Gogol can’t, maybe you should.