Thursday, March 12, 2009

21 Greatest Albums: Dr. Mars - 'Up In The Air, Vol. 1'

Dr. Mars is a mysterious band. My cousin Liam is Dr. Mars. And yet, they remain a band and mysterious.

I've started this review three times now and I am finding it hard to express just how this music strikes me. I was going to go song by song and dissect just why each one is a perfect little jewel. But now that I sit down to do that I find something lacking in that approach.

Why? It's too literal. And this music is anything but literal. It is visceral. To say that Dr. Mars echoes the sound of Bowie, The Beatles, The Ramones, The Clash, T Rex, glam rock, Queen, etc. is to put you in the arena but it doesn't put you in your actual SEAT. The beauty of 'Up In The Air, Vol. 1' is that is invokes those sounds you've been hearing since you started listening to music but somehow it turns them around, faces them in a new direction, puts them in a new context. So you are at once comforted and exhilarated.

But what pushes this music from pure enjoyment into genius is the tension that exhilaration is faced with when it is paired with the underlying theme of the album. There is a narrative that shoots through the songs, one of a great love challenged by some strange and unwieldy ideas. A man and a woman in an urban landscape wrestle with their suspicion that aliens have landed and are trying to contact them. Dr. Mars himself explained this story to me at one time but I've probably telephone-gamed it into something else.

Here is the story as I understand it.

They are in love. She is convinced that aliens are among us. At first he is concerned for her sanity and worries that the woman he loves has lost her mind. She slowly convinces him that she isn't crazy, that she has seen x,y,z and while she doesn't have an ET in her closet eating Reese's Pieces, some strange things have certainly been happening. His love for her ushers him into this world of deciphered messages, hidden meanings, as Dr. Mars says, '...scanning for cyphers and clues'.

His willingness to see her point of view sends him into a madness all his own. He yearns to break free from this Earth, to see, to KNOW. So while the idea of aliens might seem B-movie, here it is understated enough to achieve allegory.

By the end of the album they have left all normalcy behind and are ready to board, to vanish, to let their love take them away from everything they've ever known.

Scary. Romantic. Funny. And it rocks.

Now, I'm sure that I've changed some details here and perhaps Dr. Mars could write a synopsis for me someday, but that isn't really the point. You could listen to this album without knowing any of this and your response would still be enormous. The territory covered is perfect fodder for anthemic rock, doubt, fear, regret, sex, and yes, UFO's.

All great rock and roll front men are mythic figures. They place themselves outside of our experience so that they can better reflect a wider range of human truth. So, sure, Bowie seems to be singing about some cat named Ziggy Stardust. But really, he's singing about you.

When Dr. Mars imagines himself 'seein' home through the dome/wavin' back', we are the ones who have boarded the ship. We are zooming into space forever, leaving all we know behind us in the hopes of some great adventure. We are up in the air.

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