It was funny. It was fun. It was bizarre, like the Drifters’ imp-of-the-perverse 1953 version of “White Christmas,” and like that record, this unexpected “Old MacDonald” was in love with the music for its own sake, on its own terms, as an opportunity to play, to dart in and out of the corners of the song, and then to soar. Suddenly, the rest of the music in the film—Llewyn Davis’s performances of the folk-scene commonplaces “Hang Me, Oh Hang Me,” “Fare Thee Well (Dink’s Song),” and “The Death of Queen Jane”; or “Five Hundred Miles” by a proto-Peter, Paul and Mary (a folk duo played by a believable Carey Mulligan and a skim-milk-voiced Justin Timberlake, plus a faceless character Stark Sands, whose crowd-pleaser is “The Last Thing on My Mind,” a nightclub ballad in folk-music clothing)—collapsed under the weight of everything it wasn’t.Whatever this strange apparition on the radio was—as it happened, an early-’60s recording by Nolan Strong & the Diablos of Detroit—it wasn’t self-righteous. It wasn’t vain. It wasn’t pious, reverent, polished, sterile, and self-congratulatory. It wasn’t dead.
The music around which Inside Llewyn Davis turns—much of it, particularly that sung and played by Isaac’s Davis, presented not in the usual music film’s snippets but in full-length performances—is dead at its center. Listening as Davis sings–and if you can assume that the actor-singer-guitarist Isaac was following what the Coen brothers and their musical director, T-Bone Burnett, wanted him to do, you can let him disappear into his character without blame–the songs aren’t stories or testaments, riddles or mysteries, haunts or allegories, comedies or fables of morality. They’re inanimate objects.
“You don’t sing folk music—it sings you,” John Jeremiah Sullivan writes in the notes to the Inside Llewyn Davis soundtrack album (Nonesuch Records, 2013). That’s true, and that’s precisely what doesn’t happen on the album or on the screen. Sitting on a stool in the MacDougal Street basement club the Gaslight Cafe, Llewyn Davis, a tousled head of thick, dark hair, with a dark beard and big, dark eyes, begins “Hang Me, Oh Hang Me.” His guitar playing is expert, each note following the one before it with all the suspense and surprise of someone reciting the alphabet. His singing is mannered, pushed by grimaces and desperate lunges. It’s a folk-music equivalent of American Idol over-souling, the blizzard of melisma that signifies the replacement of soul with technique.
If the singer doesn’t sing the song—the traditional, handed-down, seemingly written-by-the-wind folk song—but the song sings the singer, it’s because the singer is listening to the song. It won’t tell the same tale twice. As the singer listens, he or she hears a story lurking behind the story, an unplayed theme hiding in the melody, an unvoiced curse in the rhythm. Whatever world the song is from—whatever world it is—begins to open up for the singer, and he or she faces its trials, accepts or refuses its dares, meets its characters, and replaces his or her face with theirs. But as Davis sings “Hang Me, Oh Hang Me,” it’s impossible to hear him thinking, impossible to hear him knowing what it would mean to have a rope around his neck, to feel it clinch, to be dead. “Poor boy,” he says under his breath to seal the verse, but there’s no poverty, and no person; the phrase is a sad-eyed little device, and nothing more. “Been all around this world,” he follows. That phrase, jumping from song to song all through the nineteenth century and into the twentieth, didn’t mean you’d been to England and Spain, France and China, as the singers sometimes claimed. It simply said that you’d earned the authority to tell whoever might be listening, a few people on a street corner, the audience at the Gaslight, how the world looked to you: “I’ve traveled this world,” the West Virginia slide guitarist Frank Hutchison sang laconically in 1926 in “Worried Blues,” sounding as if his tongue were coated with dust. “Boys, it’s all around.”Here in the movie’s Gaslight, there’s no experience in the way the words are put into the air, no conviction behind them, for that matter no world to go all around. “Got so goddamn hungry,” Davis sings. But you don’t believe for a second he was ever hungry, despite the fact that in the film he has no money, nowhere to live, and not a meal he doesn’t cadge: His singing doesn’t draw on his lived experience, it erases it. “Went up on a mountain, there I made my stand,” he sings. “Rifle on my shoulder, and the dagger in my hand, poor boy.” It’s words climbing a cadence, and you don’t believe this person ever made a stand, that he ever held a rifle or a dagger, that he ever thought of it, even in his most vengeful fantasies, even as a boy playing Jesse James or Wild Bill Hickok.
“Not everyone can sing these songs convincingly,” Dylan wrote in 2004 in Chronicles: Volume One of the likes of Davis’s repertoire, of Joan Baez’s versions of “The Death of Queen Jane” or “Silver Dagger.” “The singer has to make you believe what you are hearing and Joan did that,” Dylan said.
I believed that Joan’s mother would kill somebody that she loved. I believed that. I believed she’d come from that kind of family… I believed Dave Guard in the Kingston Trio, too. I believed that he would kill or already did kill poor Laura Foster. I believed that he’d kill someone else, too. I didn’t think he was playing around.
The absolute absence of such drama is what Davis’s music is all about. He is going through the motions with all his heart and soul. In the Coens’ 0 Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000) it made perfect sense that a radio station recording of “Man of Constant Sorrow” by three escaped convicts and a hitchhiking blues singer calling themselves the Soggy Bottom Boys was a runaway hit; Dan Tyminski’s voice coming out of George Clooney’s mouth made you want to hear it again and again. The music in Inside Llewyn Davis makes it impossible to understand why anyone was interested in this stuff in the first place.“Bob and me, we were both writing,” the Village-folk-scene-maker Fred Neil, in the late ’50s a would-be teen idol and cowriter of Roy Orbison’s “Candy Man,” told David Hajdu for his book Positively 4th Street: The Lives and Times of Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, Mimi Baez Farina, and Richard Farina, “but I knew how to sing.” Listen to Dylan singing “Farewell” at the end of the film, or in a different performance at the end of the soundtrack album. It’s unquestionable that compared with Isaac, with his fine picking and his wide, clear, reassuring tone, Dylan can’t sing or play at all. For that matter, neither can Emry Arthur, who, in 1928, made the indelible first recording of “Man of Constant Sorrow”—and who, despite his rudimentary guitar playing, was hired to back up other musicians for their own recordings: “He couldn’t reach the chords,” the Virginia banjoist Dock Boggs recalled long after his session with Arthur. “He’d been shot through the hands.” And that does matter: Davis’s “Hang Me, Oh Hang Me” and his “Dink’s Song” (collected in Texas in 1908 by the folklorist John Lomax from a woman named Dink, and recorded in a Minnesota hotel room in 1961 by Bob Dylan, who outrageously offered, “heard it from a lady named Dink”) are lifeless, and Dylan’s half-borrowed “Farewell” is evanescent, a will-o’-the-wisp that, as it plays, you are desperate to touch, that carries a beauty that’s just out of reach.
Like Neil, Davis knows how to sing, and the critical response to his singing has been one great swoon. Does it speak to some deep resistance to, some discomfort with, the bad voice of Dylan, of Carole King, with what’s now generations of the forced, constructed unnaturalness of punk singing, from Dylan to Johnny Rotten to Kim Gordon to Kathleen Hanna? Davis is a jerk, a loser, preening and priggish, a leech and a bore, a fuck-up and a bully. “But,” wrote Kent Jones in a Film Comment piece that echoed hundreds of other reviews, “whenever he picks up his guitar and sings, he’s an angel.” But the songs he sings don’t want angels. Angels are sexless: That’s not what the carnal reverie of “Dink’s Song” wants. Angels are innocent: That’s not what “Hang Me, Oh Hang Me” wants. “He’s an angel”—if that resistance to the punk voice does hover somewhere inside Llewyn Davis, the phrase is a Pavlovian response. Not an idea or an argument, but an affirmation that neither is necessary. It’s what James Agee railed against seventy years ago in his essay “Pseudo-Folk”: “Nasty, tricky little midgets… ‘sophisticating’ this extremely sophisticated art out of all relation to its source and, in the same gestures, achieving a once-over-lightly loving-up betrayal of the unaroused body of all the rest of the music.” Agee speaks of “vicious pseudo-folk”: Those are the right words for the Coen brothers’ re-creation of the Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem’s signature song, “The Auld Triangle,” on their screen four eggshells smoothing away the all but suicidal regret of Brendan Behan’s song about an Irish Republican about to be executed into an exercise in hitting notes, a vile moment that is uglier than what happens in Llewyn Davis’s performances, but not different.
But it’s the Coen brothers! They’re cynical! They’re sarcastic! They’re ironic! It’s supposed to be bad! I don’t think so. I don’t believe T-Bone Burnett set out to produce bad performances of good songs, and I don’t think that Joel and Ethan Coen meant Nolan Strong & The Diablos to show up Davis for the mediocrity that he is or to show up the film critics who are so touched by his music as, again in Agee’s words, “the sort of people who enjoy this sort of decay.”
Which is hardly the last word on folk music today, or even the first word. Watch the Texas noir series True Detective on HBO, listen to its theme song, the Handsome Family’s “Far from Any Road,” from their 2003 album Singing Bones, and fall down the rabbit hole that the Coens’ version of the Gaslight was built right on top of, to cover it up and seal it tight. Who picked that song? True Detective‘s music supervisor, T Bone Burnett.
Artforum, March 2013