Alice Practice was the first track ever released by Crystal Castles – it actually came from a casting of the singer/songwriter Alice Glass on the music of Ethan Kath (the two members of Crystal Castles), and the sound engineer secretly recorded her soundcheck. This lead to a first 4 tracks EP including Alice Practice, Dolls, Air War, and Love and Caring, released in 2006.
We chose Crystal Castles and this song in particular, to explore another side of songwriting – a radically non-conformist one.
Lyrics analysis and meaning
The track starts on layer of 8-bit glitches accompanied by some powerful, aggressive beats.
A nice woman’s voice saying hello… in strong contrast with the violent music. A setup, the beginning of a conversation? It soon becomes clear that this “Hi” goes with nothing else and is a kind of wrong track – just meant to establish a fake cordiality just before passing on the attack.
Scars will heal soon
The voice totally changed: it became aggressive like the music.
A medical-sounding line, after the “Hi”, creates a weird effect of contrast.
You shrug it off
The meaning jumps again for the third time in three lines. Nobody can tell who is the “you” and what is the “it” in “you shrug it off”; the “it” could mean the previous “scars”, but we can not be sure.
Except that you don’t
This line breaks the systematic jumps of meaning and keeps continuous with the previous line, but not for a better result, since it just contradicts and cancels it.
The lyrics stop, the music continues. But the structure of the track stays surprising, it does not sound like a classic Verse/Chorus/Verse.
Better, it surely
It don’t fall out
Same problem of meaning: the audience can not make sure about what is this “it”: the scars, or something else that remains unnamed?
Said I live low
I lisp, I die
The “I” is back, but just to assert 3 negative things on oneself, 2 about dying, 1 about a speech impediment – which for a singer/songwriter, sounds ironic, but very symbolic of Crystal Castles’ style. This narrator-character is no Hero.
Sugar shooting, bled with deadbeats
Surprisingly, the verbs of action are either deleted or weakened or turned indirect ways: a passive present continuous or a weird past time. It also contributes to an aesthetic that refuses order, narration and meaning.
Only crawl, so your eyes
Again, the subject is missing and the verb sounds vague – infinitive, available for action but not currently involved (“only crawl” sounds abstract compared to “I only crawl”). Again, the verb carries a negative meaning: to crawl, the weak form of walking like lisping is the weak form of talking.
“your eyes, sad eyes”: again, we have no other element to identify this “you”: is it us, or who else? The reduction of this character to his/her/their eyes stays in the overall logic of destruction.
Why, who has quite Christian blood? We have no element to understand.
Drop it, it’s dead
Mystery again about the identity of this “it”.
We dropped it
Finally we have a bit of action, with some people – this undefined “we” – who dropped a body. It is a narrative element without the appropriate context, a plot point without a plot.
And took the body home
For once, two lines make sense together… but the result of it sounds absurd: who would find a dead body, drop it and take it home? We can not find any rational motivation for anybody to do that.
The repetition of those sad eyes helps structuring the lyrics a bit, but since it is not much connected to other elements of meaning, it sounds like a worrying, mad obsession.
Scars, I’m chopping dagger
A link is finally made between the previous “scars” and the act of an aggressor armed with a dagger. Surprisingly, the dagger-holder is now the singer,
See you’ll never walk, only stagger
Same process of transformation by reduction than before: crawl, lisp, stagger instead of walk and talk.
Sad eyes, quite Christian
Alice Practice is a representative example of anti-storytelling and anti-narration:
- No proper plot
- No actantial characters – no deep and wide goals, no consistent motivations
- There are characters and agents, but their identities stay very blurry and their properties are very diminished, low
- No coherent development of situations
- No overall chronology
The song could be a discourse-based song, like many protest-songs, but it is not the case either:
- No clear argumentation
- No main topic
- No clear message
- We could say it’s a kind of protest-song against lyrics 😀
Is anti-storytelling legal?
Yes, it is perfectly legal 🙂
From a formal point of view: it is true that we can abstract rules and principles and tricks from artworks. But nobody is allowed to say that artworks HAVE TO be done a certain way. So, for sure we can get to know much about the rules, principles and tricks of storytelling, but that does not mean that we have to apply them systematically and always a standard way.
On the contrary: since a majority of works is done according to “the” rules (even when the rules were not applied a very relevant way…), it will necessarily make a strong effect of contrast if an artwork chooses to radically break the rules and contradict them all. So that there is obviously a big advantage – on an over-saturated music market – in not-following the rules – that makes this artist very original, unique.
Another advantage of breaking the rules: it is more appropriate to render what is broken in life. Artworks are often like mirrors, they are good because they reflect well.
Broken storytelling renders better broken lives, broken visions of the world, and rules-breaking aesthetic and ethics.
Crystal Castles went far on this way, on their album Crystal Castles I:
- On Untrust us, the lyrics are made of only 2 lines repeated in loops, charged with distortion effects that make the lyrics nearly ununderstandable.
- On Crimewave, the vocals are frequently short-looped which make understanding more difficult
- On Love and Caring, the shouted vocals compete with the music and become nearly inaudible
- Black Panther has long, developed, standard lyrics… but the way the song is mixed makes the voice a kind of high-pitched ghost whose words sound enigmatic
On their album Crystal Castles II:
- Fainting Spells: same remark.
- Doe Deer goes total crazy. The vocals are very important in it, but totally inaudible by over-saturation of the frequencies.
- Baptism stays at the frontier. We can hear and follow part of the lyrics, while some very punk parts sound much less audible. Same with Empathy.
- Year of Silence has audible lyrics… written in Icelandic from a Sigur Ros song!
- On Violent Dreams, the vocals say a weird but coherent text about a car accident involving two policemen and a woman, the slowed-down lyrics are understandable if we pay attention. The vocals are then transformed into music via resampling and vocoding to become a kind of chorus in a fantasy language.
- Vietnam seems to prolongate Violent Dreams, by using the same effect of vocals sampled to be used as instrumental. Here the lyrics are reduced to a fistful of inaudible syllables, whose meaning is discussed.
- Birds and Pat Smear use very high-pitched vocals.
- Same for Not In Love, but in the version sung by Robert Smith the lyrics sound like in a normal pop-rock song.
- We hear there are lyrics in Intimate, but totally incomprehensible. We can read those lyrics, they’re about love…
- I am made of chalk sounds like an extreme experiment on vocals. We hear it’s a high-pitched slowed-down female voice who sounds like mumbling, screaming, meaowing to death. We don’t clearly get the words, but we can hear it’s human or animal voice that transmits a very eerie emotion.
Conclusion: Crystal Castles made the unconventional lyrics and vocals an art, by a series of frequent processes:
- Distort the voices (pitch it high or low, slow it down or accelerate it, reduce the frequencies, put a huge delay) to make them suggestive rather than discursive – words become noise, a whistle, a murmur, a background, a barking, a meaowing, a complaint, a scream…
- Treat the voice as an instrument playing notes, not lyrics – the singer’s syllables are controlled by a sampler that breaks the meaning into pure sounds
Those lyrics and vocals are very original indeed since they refuse the classic position of the singer as an expression of the people, a poetic or political voice sharing a vision of the world.
Crystal Castles obtain a superior effect by blurring the meaning, to transmit more emotion than meaning, a non-intellectual state of mind – as scat-singing in jazz, or The Great Gig In The Sky by the Pink Floyd, had done before. A conventional story could not have transmitted that.