John Malkovich Like a Puppet Show

[Cryogenia; 2015]

Styles: spoken word, ambient, electronica, post-rock
Others: Plato, William Shatner, Yoko Ono, Sean Lennon, Young the Giant, Placebo, Ric Ocasek, etc.

Plato was a bore.
– Friedrich Nietzsche

Luckily, John Malkovich and his roll-call of co-conspirators are a little more entertaining. In commemoration of Record Store Day (Black Friday), they’ve taken Plato’s Allegory of the Cave and spun it through 12 remixes that cover the hinterlands between electro-ambient and goofy rock, endowing the ancient Greek philosopher’s parable with unsettling gravitas at one end of the spectrum and farcical absurdity at the other. Over Malkovich’s dramatic reading of the fable, they’ve layered benighted soundscapes and disquieting improvisation that conveys the ignorance, confusion, and fear invading Plato’s troglodytic captives, imbuing the allegory with more immediacy and power that it can radiate alone.

As for the particular content of this allegory, Malkovich’s lyrics relate it clearly enough. They were penned by composer Eric Alexandrakis, who produced the original composition that the 12 entries in Like a Puppet Show all rejig and embellish, and whose adaption of Plato’s myth provides these same lines with a sustained clarity and force. In the OMD-treated opener “Cryocarbon 14C,” they somberly ask us to imagine prisoners “inhabiting a kind of cavernous, subterranean cave, chained by their legs and necks, so that only what is front of them can be seen.” The track’s retro-futuristic electronics and incidental disturbances ply them with a sense of incipient breakthrough, a nascent burgeoning that’s proven a tad premature by the Yoko Ono and Sean Lennon effort that succeeds it. During this successor — the ambiguously named “Cryolife 7:14 A.M.” — the maudlin tinkling of piano infests their elaborations with a dank solemnity, as Malkovich gravely continues, “Further up is the light from a fire which burns from behind the men… Captives within such a form of confinement would have seen nothing of themselves or of one another, except for the shadows thrust by the firelight onto the wall of the cave.”

It’s this ability to perceive nothing but the “shadows on the wall” that the allegory centers itself around, arguing that humanity had grown accustomed to seeing the world falsely, to seeing only the distorted impressions and residues of objects, not these objects as they “truly” or “really” are. As Malkovich intones during the claustrophobically dense ambient of “Cryoblue Cheese O,” “The prisoners have been here since childhood,” having been brought up to recognize only the sensory traces of things, not the underlying reality “we refer to as the Good.” According to Plato (and Malkovich), the Good “gives birth to light” and enables us to grasp the fundamental, universal Forms that make all particular objects what they are.

So far, so nutty, yet if we go along with the deranged Plato, then all particular objects are merely imperfect shadows of the universal Forms. Hence, the Allegory of the Cave, where shackled prisoners are separated from “The Form of Goodness,” which, “with tremendous difficulty, is the final Idea to be grasped within the sphere of wisdom,” as a hopeful Malkovich respires in the stately “Cryoparoxysm.” During this track, the downbeat acoustic guitars and scattered, post-rockish bleeping of Young the Giant carry Malkovich as he raises the possibility of someone escaping the cave. In an understated tone of momentousness, he asks us, “Upon entering the light, would the brilliance entering [the liberated captive’s] eyes keep from him seeing anything he was now told was real? Would he not feel his eyes aching?” It’s at this point that a hushed lull gives way to a more purposeful sequence of finger-pickings, 4/4 beats, and looped piano riffs, as the escapee sets about acclimatizing to his new environment and pondering “what would happen if he had chosen to return to his former place of confinement in the cave.” The musical accompaniment for this self-questioning passage is nicely done in its complementarity, combing a mixture of awe and insecurity as Malkovich suggests that the remaining detainees “would surely kill the one who was trying to set them free and lead them out of darkness.”

This accedence to the Good represents the “classic” metaphysical interpretation of the allegory and will most likely prevail as the central interpretation of Like a Puppet and its eclectic musical narrations. However, if you’re neither called Plato nor insane enough to believe in some abstract or metaphysical substrate of eternal Forms that determines the everyday world of tables, chairs, tampons, PlayStation 4s, and things that haven’t even been invented yet, another reading of the album might be more satisfying. Fortunately, one such alternative is available, coming through in cuts that use all of Malkovich’s original monologue, such as the quietly shimmering “Cryostat Ø.” Put together by Efterklang, this seven-minute trail of incipient drones and electronic stirrings has Malkovich offering further details which in turn invest the parable with an interesting subtext. He reveals that, “Between the captives and the fire is a trail with a parapet built along it, like a partition at a puppet show, hiding the performers as they animate their puppets over the topside. Imagine that, behind this partition, people are moving along and carrying various synthetic objects, including figures of men and animals made from wood, stone, or other materials, whose forms are projected above the parapet.”

In other words, the shadows the prisoners see on the cave’s wall are caused and being manipulated by a group of captors. For whatever reason, this gang of conspirators have imprisoned the cave-dwellers and constrained their perceptions so that they can see only what it’s desired they should see. As restated by “Cryoplacebo 47 XXY” and its forlorn, piano-led elegies, “reality, then, to these prisoners, would be established in the form of nothing but shadows from artificial objects,” with these artificial objects having been manufactured by their incarcerators. It therefore becomes apparent in the midst of Placebo’s cold gloom that the problem isn’t the metaphysical or epistemological one of being permanently incapable of seeing things as they “really” are, but the political one of being coerced and deceived by the powerful.

It’s this framing of Like a Puppet Show that makes the anthology more relevant and intriguing, touching as it does on how the media, to take a flagrant example, distorts our worldview by over-saturating us with a constant barrage of “shadowy” partiality, bias and spin that we end up mistaking for the truth. In “Platogenia X and The Caves,” this interpretation comes to the surface as The Dandy Warhols clothe Malkovich in sparse beats and faint, ephemeral atmospherics, over which he dryly explains, “When one of the persons crossing behind them would speak, the prisoners could only assume that the sound had come from the shadow, passing right before their sights.” With this line, it emerges once again that the cave isn’t a product of their inherently fallible senses, but rather the product of their masters, whose self-serving voices are passed off to the captives as reality and objectivity. The sobering nakedness of this revelation is heightened by the minimalist production offered by the Dandy Warhols, whose light touches of FX and stripped-down bass foreground the monologue’s lyrics, reinforcing the message that, more often than we care to think, our beliefs are there only to make it easier for the powerful to go about exploiting and extorting us.

Or maybe not. As Dweezil Zappa and his psych-rock “CryoZolon X” humorously ask, “Malkovich, Malkovich, what the fuck are you talking about?”, encapsulating how it’s possible to find in Like a Puppet Show little more than a Hollywood actor exercising his thespian chops while a team of delegates from the “music scene” go about deepening his recital with ponderous, portentous, and sometimes picayune examples of sonic bricolage. In a few cases, such as the Ono/Lennon, Efterklang, and Young the Giant contributions, these examples add a great deal to the allegory, rising dynamically and articulately through its narrative shifts to lend it not only greater pathos, but also the suspicion that it is indeed addressing important questions of human perception and how such perception is furtively controlled by today’s heirs to Machiavelli.

In a small minority of other cases, however, the instrumentation isn’t especially in sync with the rise and fall of Malkovich’s words. With the aforementioned Placebo number, for instance, there are a couple of moments during the first half of the track where the piano grows obtrusively in volume, even though Malkovich hasn’t arrived at a significant announcement or a point of departure. This unannounced escalation cuts against the general significance of the allegory, which is a shame, since otherwise the track is a suitably mournful rendering of the parable. So too are the vast bulk of the additions to Like a Puppet Show, even if the album would have benefited from a few more deviations away from the ambient/electronic/post-rock template it mostly lays down. This blueprint does a persuasive job of evoking the inability to perceive the world clearly and to navigate it effectively, although its leanings toward the bleaker scheme of things means that it occasionally falls foul of the very one-sidedness, partiality, and shortsightedness it identifies in the cave’s prisoners. Perhaps this is just as it should be, since as far as Plato was concerned, we’re all unable to perceive more than a slither of reality, and if we were shown “Truth” in its all-encompassing completeness and totality, we wouldn’t be able to handle its “marvelous brilliance.” Of course, Plato was a fascistic nutter who dreamed of a totalitarian state ruled by philosopher-kings, so what would he know about what we could and couldn’t handle?

Links: John Malkovich - Cryogenia

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