Pura Vida Conspiracy, A Close Reading


You probably aren’t like me. If you were - you’d have known Gogol Bordello’s Irish twin albums Gypsy Punks and Super Taranta! as the high-water marks of rock in this new millennium’s canon. And like me you would’ve been disappointed by the band’s subsequent nosedive in 2010 to, said best by Jason Gubbels, mellow worldbeat pedestrianism with Trans-Siberian Hustle. Imagine then my ambivalence at Pura VidaConspiracy - a sustained sea shanty retaining all the elements that sunk their last album, but parlaying them back into the noize that so defined their mid-career successes. Did I love it or hate it?

Well, until I heard it more times than others who love it, and the rest who hate it - I wasn’t sure. In fact, after a dozen spins only three things stood out: the absence of Brontosaurus-hands drummer Eliot Ferguson is an era defining change - and unless he or someone like him returns, the Gogol mix and arrangement will be tempered to reflect it; Rick Rubin’s compressed production habits have stuck with Hutz - three years after his band split from American Recordings; and Hutz’s voice is suddenly a centerpiece rather than a compliment.

Negative takes (this band will never attain universal acclaim) fixate on the former two as major failings: the sound either disappoints or regurgitates itself - or both. Putting aside the fact that I eventually came to love the often subdued melodies punctuated maybe too infrequently by the band’s existential orgasms - I’m going to issue an apologia for Pura Vida devoted to championing its third element of change: that Hutz is now the vocal and lyrical centerpiece. Roughly why? Because he’s crafted an album as nuanced and literate a religious statement as you could hope to otherwise find in a library.

Maybe you’re the kind of person who doesn’t appreciate abstract ruminations of even foremost intellectuals, let alone one coming from a guy whose biggest spiritual contribution to date has been “First time I had read the Bible it had stroke me as unwitty, I think it may started rumor that the lord ain’t got no humor.’ - but let the following demonstrate that in a year surprisingly fraught with religious pronouncements - Kanye West’s thorny crown and Ezra Koenig fighting Ya Hey Yahweh while calypso singers laugh at him - Gogol Bordello issues the most far reaching religious statement for listeners in 2013.

Instead of the more concrete declarations on universalism despite-nationality a la Multi Kontra Culti vs. Irony's “Through the Rood ‘n’ Underground.” “And as we’re crossing border after border / we realize the difference is none” or Gypsy Punk’s “Underdog World Struck,” “But be it me, or it’s you, the leisure class / I think we all know: / That be it punk, hip-hop, be it a reggae sound / It is all connected through / The gypsy part of town…” we get “We Rise Again”’s abstract “Borders are scars on face of the planet. So heal away my alchemy man.”

The line sets Hutz up for two themes revisited throughout the album: a sense of placelessness (and at times) displacement both physical and spiritual; and the rejuvenating effects of humanism drawing from mystical tropes from every weird nook on Earth. Hutz elaborates much further on the first of these a few songs in, with Gogol’s single “Lost Innocent World,” a statement as crucial as it is obfuscatory in understanding Hutz’s melting pot philosophy:

This weary king of the Wonderlusts asks the most loaded question in his band’s history:

Hey, rejuvenation

desiccant wind

when when when when when when will it begin?

Repatriation:

what is my sin?

when when when when when will my ship come in?

first i asked the sailor to sneak me aboard

bring me place my father showed me my first first guitar chord

place where lie of second thought cannot survive

place, where all my friends are still alive

Lost innocent world

lost innocent paradise

where did you do?

I pay too high a price

Lost innocent world

lost innocent paradise

once I’ll get you back

I’ll never sacrifice.

So much is happening here. At first brush, a “lost paradise” recalls Milton or (if you feel justified in doubting the breadth of Hutz’s literacy, a claim no doubt supported by lyrics like “lie of second thought” and “once i’ll get you back”) more simply Eden - in either case: a world sacrificed in the pursuit of something nefarious. I won’t go far enough to say Hutz regrets initiating the gypsy punk revolution only he seems capable of or willing to sustain - but the implication’s there. Of course - no conceptualization of Eden quite jives with the “father” or “friends” Hutz drops into the verse, so either his metaphor’s pretty weak or something else is at stake. Those few who know the singer’s personal history will note that as a child he fled his Ukrainian hometown after Chernobyl exploded - and arrived in Vermont as a refugee at the age of twenty. Maybe two decades of globetrotting as both an unwilling and - by now with money and means - willing diaspora has made Hutz something like homesick. ‘Repatriation’ suggests as much. A little less Eden and a little more Ukraine.

Let’s say it’s both. If we accept his homesickness is manifest physically, then the wind Hutz cries for is the force necessary to propel a boat across the Atlantic - an antiquated travel motif that sets the theme for the whole album. But note the kind of wind Hutz needs: desiccant. This word is used so infrequently outside of academic biology, I had to look up its definition to make sure our mad Russian wasn’t just trying to keep meter with some intelligent sounding bullshit. Nope.

It’s not by chance that ‘rejuvenation’ precedes ‘desiccant wind’ in a song otherwise full of vaguely Christian symbology. It’s with this verse we first take stock of Hutz’s tendency to invert stayed Christian tropes: he will be returned to home, and thus fulfilled, if he is dried or kept dry entirely - rather than baptized. Accuse me of reaching interpretatively if you want - but note he ridicules baptism later in ‘The Way You Name Your Ship:’ “How you plan staying afloat? / Even boatsman grab Bible and split from the boat.’ In other words: you were robbed the moment you touched the water. So maybe he does mean Eden - some anti-Eden.

But in fact, “The Way You Name Your Ship” goes even further than that - the song defines the Negative in Hutz’s so-called and often maligned immigrant philosophy as it exists inPura Vida Conspiracy. Here, the Russian is at pain to reject Christianity in ways both playful and oblique:

It has torn you apart

From deep within

Left no vigorous cell

Even in Eden you seek knothole to hell

and

Now in the beginning there was a Word

In the end there is no end

People don’t live or die

People just fade in and out of the fog

We come to comprehend

With this Hutz risks the kind of cheap nihilism that stopped doing Sinead O’Conner any favors after she tore the pope in half, but thankfully absolves himself in a crucial way: he is a reader whose allusive capacit grants dimension and precedent to his decision to toss a whole religion overboard.

Thank UMass Boston American Studies professor Jeffrey Melnick for his intertextual chops - as he’s so far the sole listener to hear Hutz channeling The Tempest’s Caliban in “Name Your Ship.” Check the allusion:

PROSPERO

Abhorred slave,

Which any print of goodness wilt not take,

Being capable of all ill! I pitied thee,

Took pains to make thee speak, taught thee each hour

One thing or other: when thou didst not, savage,

Know thine own meaning, but wouldst gabble like

A thing most brutish, I endow’d thy purposes

With words that made them known. But thy vile race,

Though thou didst learn, had that in’t which

good natures

Could not abide to be with; therefore wast thou

Deservedly confined into this rock,

Who hadst deserved more than a prison.

CALIBAN

You taught me language; and my profit on’t

Is, I know how to curse. The red plague rid you

For learning me your language!

Becomes for Hutz in Pura Vida:

You taught your parrot to stutter

Now you repeat his old chatter

You taught your parrot to stutter

Now you believe his old chatter

You taught your parrot to stutter

Now you’re a slave to his chatter!

Assign the players their roles: Hutz, a swaggering mooncalf his whole career - he rightly assumes the Caliban whose lines he snarls. But who is Prospero? Is it Captain Crooked Grin, the seeming villain implored every refrain: “Oh hey (Hey) /  Ho (Ho!) / Captain Crooked Grin / Tell us where you trying to go.”? Maybe. But just who is that? Is it you, the listener? Is it this guy? Unclear.

Here’s what we can know: Hutz chooses for his analogue one of the principal antagonists in the Shakespearean canon - a deranged attempted rapist - and heralds him against some Prospero. Let’s skip over what this means for Hegelian dialectic (and for Hutz’s already discomforting reputation as a phallic trickster) and focus instead on the broader allusive implications: that Hutz wantssomeoneto renounce an insidious book of spells. And since the only text explicitly at stake on “Name Your Ship” (or Pura Vida, for that matter) is the Bible… we seem to have ingenious inversion in our hands.

But even with the Bard’s touches, Hutz’s cynicism might have been stultifying - if he hadn’t the enterprise to captain another vessel, the Positive pole of his immigrant’s philosophy to foil the Negative understood above. And, says this fan, his vision harmonizes content and form about as successfully as ‘Alcohol’ - Hutz’s first real literary achievement.

Let’s add up some of the metaphors this philosophy has til now fixed in order to negate: borders are scars on face of the planet, a world of lost innocence is difficult if not impossible to locate on a map or in the soul, and baptismal water is opposite of rejuvenation. Since Hutz proves rather careless in separating symbol from all stuff literal - this list poses a huge problem for him: where the hell is he going to locate either his body or the Positive in (figurative or actual) space if he wants no part of land or sea - and wouldn’t know where to start looking for Eden even if he could choose between the two?

There are two good answers here - the first of which is obvious: a boat. A boat keeps you dry, points you in some direction, and holds you in international waters. It’s a solid metaphor, and the one Hutz constructs this album - which so many have rightly called a sea shanty - around. Aye aye.

The second answer? It flirts close enough with both the cynicism of lived simulacrum spat out by some self-suck academics and the nonsense Eckhart Tolle decrees law that it risks being no kind Positive at all - but is rendered so poetically and optimistically by Hutz that it succeeds all the more: he is everywhere and nowhere, inhabitant of all time and no time, be-er of all nouns and no nouns. In other words, Hutz articulates a humanist conception of self that draws in all things but can be beholden by and reduced to none: the fully realized immigrant diaspora. Check that album artwork: violence has unstuck this guy’s head in time.

Full disclosure: my senior thesis deals exclusively in the aesthetic and historical importance of literature written this - but I get ahead of myself. Or maybe not… You decide: let the purposefully irreverent but no less monumental ‘Hieroglyph’ signify a kind of Genesis re-write that turns to grassroots our otherwise trickle-down creation myth (hey, another Christian inversion):

I never was unruly Poseidon

My name, it was so often forgotten

But I’m inside of every tree

I’m inside of every atom

Sky and earth, united by me

I’m unity, I’m gravity

I’m a warrior turned dove

I’m hieroglyph of love, love

Hieroglyph of love, love

If I’m gone before you cry

It’s illusion, all illusions must die

I simply am and will always be

Waiting for you to discover me

I’m unity, I’m gravity

I’m wind of eternity

I’m a warrior turned dove

I’m hieroglyph of love, love

Hieroglyph of love, love

Passion can be quiet, it can be still

Waiting to confront of something real

Against the lows I’m still here

I’m always with you, I’m always near

Sky and earth, united by me

I’m unity, I’m gravity

I’m a warrior turned dove

I’m hieroglyph of love, love

Hieroglyph of love, love

And he doesn’t stop preaching there. The bummer closer “We Shall Sail”? That’s conversion propaganda:

Hey brother-stranger

you know we shall sail

even if even if only to fail

cuz winning and losing keep journey unusing

down down down your destiny trail.

but nothing in this life is good or bad

it’s we who dress it up as happy or sad

and nothing in this life is a sure must

if you got no place where you belong

shoulder of stranger just good and strong

come to my house in middle of night

and don’t, don’t hesitate

kick the door out

and no one in this life is sinner or saint

its just energy running up the stream

or down the drain

Talk about a mission statement. We’ve got the everything/nothing in-betweeness central to this brand of humanism: brother/stranger, setting sail in order to better follow a (probably dirt or gravel) trail, nothing good/bad or happy/sad, nothing is a sure must. Plus there’s that gypsy disregard for property rights. And a return to the boat metaphor: you’re either energy rowing against the current upstream, or you’re (presumably baptized) sucked down with the water he takes such pains to avoid. But wait, you said Hutz can’t find Eden - so to where are we rowing exactly? Probably to the locationless “meridians of madness on the parallels of love” he mentions in “Amen.”

Call me too dear a fan, but this stuff is as thoroughly consistent as it gets. That said, you’d be wise to object to Hutz’s position of love’s non-position as convenient if not altogether lazy. But I allow it on two suppositions: one, you’re going to have to draw together everything the Church is not (myriad contradictions included) if you hope to oppose in spirit the Western world’s foremost agent of hierarchical classification. Hutz knows the other side of the rainbow is black and white, after all. And two: the dude’s been literally everywhere, and cherrypicks what he likes and doesn’t like. You can tell: his religious convictions are as disorderly as his spiritual essence is sound.

Whatever he calls this philosophy is a goofy admixture I’d wager no one else on the planet could claim, and incorporates elements of shamanism (“shamanic speakers” in Dig Deep Enough), early African-American folklore (“High John the Conqueror”),  Buddhism (reincarnation, ‘mama sutra’ in “Rainbow”), logicism (“not enough’s not enough!” in “We Rise Again”), proto-Christian mysticism (‘philosopher’s stone’ and ‘alchemy’ also in “We Rise Again”), Greek myth (‘unruly Poseidon’  in “Name Your Ship”) and, honest, Bokononism (the weird stuff about fated couples mixed up with rebirth in “Amen”).

Might be worthy of an eye roll if Hutz took it seriously. But as it exists now, this international bricolage of spirit is all the more playful fodder aimed at sinking the ship named Christianity. What might of been some other band’s “We Rise Again” - a modern revision of Christ’s resurrection, some kind of satire perhaps. Nah, just a promise that Gogol Bordello’s brief foray into commercial appeal with Rick Rubin was a minor stumble, and now their hearts are again set on attaining the philosopher’s stone - an enlightenment for Hutz no doubt already defined by booze and women and border hopping. Then there’s “Amen” - in other hands maybe a downtempo prayer, or critical self-examination in dialogue with God? Nope, a nonsensical throwaway about summer dancing and sex and, huh, Buddha - and maybe Kurt Vonnegut.

Though I’d defend my 3200 words on this album as effort well spent - because yes Pura Vida Conspiracy is literature and yes it deserves some critical attention - Hutz’s big phallic joust with the Church doesn’t necessarily compel me beyond its aesthetic merits. These kinds of attacks have been staged hundreds of times in recent pop culture (though not many as self-reflexively or as pleasurably, uh, Neon Bible) and none played however loud could drown out even a single Midwestern prayer. But that’s a conversation for another blog. No, what I find most enthralling on a human level (supposing I have anything in common with this goofy mustachioed 40 something idol of mine) is the identity crisis he titled “Malandrino” - the closest thing you’ll hear to a meta-narrative on the radio this year.

As much as Eugene Hutz wants us to believe he’s flipped the switch to ON for “the only light there is,” he also needs us to know, obliquely, that sometimes - especially now with Pura Vida - the bulb flickers. Robert Christgau notes wisely that ‘malandrino’ means ‘trickster’ in Brazil. But is that what we can call Eugene Hutz - still? Surely tricksters don’t wax nostalgic, philosophical, romantic, spiritual. They’re supposed to fuck and pull pranks. Make loud noises. Laugh. Be dicks. For sure - he did that kind of shit in the brash and funEast Infection, and in the borderline creepy but nevertheless transcendentGypsy Punks, and with mad smarts inSuper Taranta!But now he lives in Brazil - where there’s no history of a trickster myth (a maladrino is a contemporary kind of petty criminal - though a likable one), where he’s growing old and gasp! writing melodies. It’s the place he was living when his music traded in a lot of its revolutionary spirit for an actual spirit kind of spirit.

This song is fraught with this tension. Hutz doesn’t remember his birth, but he remembers from the start - presumably of the band. The two midwives who delivered him into fame (I’m going to guess two principal halves of his personality - but we don’t need to go that far) were awed from the beginning at his “singing heart,” his existential need to be a joyous front man. All the doors to concert halls and success were opened to him because his “nut” persona is beloved by all cultures, regardless of demographic composition. “It’s true” he confirms, as if we wouldn’t believe him, they once threw this nut into  “trenches” - and his front line permanent revolution fans sure loved that, yo. But now things are different. Let me rewrite the refrain for you:

Malandro, Malandro, Malandrino

Truffaldo, Truffaldo, Truffaldino,

Malandro, Malandro, Malandrino

I was born with singing heart

Brazilian (not Russian) trickster, Brazilian trickster, small Brazilian trickster

Tuffaldo, the comic character of Carlo Goldoni’sServant of Two Masters,comic servant of two masters, small comic servant of two masters

Then back to English: Hutz obfuscates his anxiety with a hilarious disagreement between the two midwives:

Those midwives were like politicians

To bickering they were so prone

One said “life is beautiful gift, boy”

Other one said “government loan”

They might as well be saying: “nourish and love the spirit you’ve been given” and “fight the power, Eugene!” Does he know which half to trust? Love or revolution? No.

I still don’t know which one is right girl

[But that’s okay because]

And you know I don’t really care

I got to keep my heart of a-singing

And for that anything I’ll dare [even if my soul needs to write melodies about secular humanism and I alienate my fans and no one listens to my music anymore]

Brazilian trickster, Brazilian trickster, small Brazilian trickster

Comic servant of two masters, comic servant of two masters, small comic servant of two masters

He later screams about make-up sex, which is important: while he’s still fucking like the phallic trickster he’s always claimed to be, he’s also apologizing for something - which is new.

Hutz would dare anything to keep singing - strong and confusing words from a man who claimed just one song earlier he’d never sacrifice anything if he could be reunited with his lost innocent world. Here’s hoping he keeps thinking of new places to look.