Talent, of any kind, starts with a seed, a small bit of inspiration somewhere that results in an idea, or an opportunity, or a curiosity. That’s just one part of it though. The rest is what a person decides to do with that talent. A seed, by itself, doesn’t really accomplish a whole lot, as in order for it to grow it must be nurtured and given the proper environment to develop. And once it has grown up, well, that’s where the interesting part starts, because only then does it start to grow out.
On a related note, I have just listened to Vienna Teng’s new album, Aims.
Don’t get me wrong. Vienna has been a talented individual for a very, very long time. She’s an artist that I have followed from almost the beginning. I discovered her first album, Waking Hour, through word-of-mouth in the middle of my undergraduate years, and have consistently kept up with her music ever since, acquiring every subsequent release the moment I could. When I was in graduate school, her music was a constant part of my playlist, which was especially fitting as that was during the time she had taken a break from writing and touring to pursue a graduate degree as well. In fact, hearing her sing has been a constant reminder to me that paths through life are never really set in stone, and that a person can always find new ways to branch out.
It is a good thing, then, that Aims initially seems to be a departure of style. When I played the first song for it, Level Up, for my wife, her first comment was that ‘it doesn’t sound like Vienna. It’s different from what she’s done before’. And she’s right, though it’s hard to put a finger on exactly how. Sure, Level Up sounds a bit more polished, in the sense that it has more of a ‘studio’ feel than anything previous, and the piano takes a backseat to a more diverse instrumentation. However, I thought about it, and I realized that the fact that the opening track, and the tracks that follow it, are different than what has come before is what makes them completely and undoubtedly Vienna. Even as far back as Dreaming through the Noise, which embraced a slow-jazz theme, I thought that she was an expert at reinventing herself, with positive results every time.
This time around, external influences shine through a little more, though it’s hard to point to any specific song and say, “Oh, this totally sounds like some other thing.” I think the closest that any song gets to that is In the 99, which, for me anyway, evokes the same percussive style that Genesis used at times, and thematically could be considered a sort of modern-day Land of Confusion. On an even more abstracted-away level, certain other songs have a very distinct Imogen Heap vibe. The whole album has the stylistic coherence of Arcade Fire, which I can imagine was on her grad school study playlist (not a bad thing, as they were on mine, and on the same playlist Vienna herself was on).
Thematically, the album is comprised of three interwoven parts: Intimacy, Critique, and Exhortation. Each song on the album fits into one, or more than one, of these categories, which are separated out in a nice little Venn diagram on the underside of the physical CD packaging. The inclusion of that diagram (besides being a little nod to us data geeks) really is a wonderful visualization of how the album is constructed. After looking at that, listening to the whole thing straight through, and then looking at it again, I noticed something. The songs that fit into just one segment are the songs that are the most literal, and the songs that are the most immediately resonant. The ones that fit into two categories are a bit more abstract, and though the point of the song might seem apparent at first, there is at least one underlying layer to each one. Finally, the one song that fits into all three categories, Landsailor (featuring the brilliantly talented Glen Phillips), is a song that did not even really resonate with me at all, initially. It was only on the second or third listen that I really even began to ‘get it’, as it were, and it is definitely a song that will mean different things to different people. Which is the point, really, and why it fits so easily in to all of the themes on the album. It is a song about how the world needs different things from you as you grow and change, and how, similarly, you need different things from the world, and how it isn’t always easy or possible for those things to be provided, in either direction.
All three of these themes are quite relevant, and most are reminders of how the world has changed, even in the past couple of years since Vienna’s last album. Couple that with the self-imposed artistic cocoon that something like graduate school can demand of a person, and one can imagine how afterward there must have been a wealth of creative inspiration that burst forth afterward. It’s quite amazing to hear the results, especially when some of the material deals with issues that happened over a year or two ago. In that time, for example, it has become easy for people to be cynical about the Occupy movement. In the 99 is a reminder of how ‘the 99%’ doesn’t just refer to protesters or the angrily disenchanted, but to literally 99% of the population of America. The Hymn of Acxiom is a bit more current, casting the world’s ever-growing obsession with social media into the trappings of a religious hymn, albeit a highly satirical one. Yes, for all the stylistic experimentation that this album contains, this is the same Vienna; this is the Vienna who delivers Radiohead’s Idioteque with far less irony (and more relevance) than Radiohead themselves do, this is the Vienna who brought us a scathing comparison of bad workplaces to bad relationships in Whatever You Want, and this is the Vienna who has sang about the upsides and downsides of a life based on constant mobility.
Of course, it is impossible to talk about Aims without also talking about Detroit. The cover of the album is a data visualization of population change in the city, after all, with the point being that an area right in the middle of Detroit is showing a massive amount of growth. And we’re not just talking massive ‘for Detroit’, but in general. Certainly, this runs counter to people’s expectations of the place, especially after years of seeing on the news just ‘how badly Detroit has it’. We hear that on the news all the time because it is what we want to hear, or at least expect to hear. That is why it is so surprising for a lot of people when they hear that the opposite is happening, and also why looking at the raw data is very important. The media can choose to cover (or not) what they wish, and to put a spin on things (or not) how they like, but numbers don’t lie. Neither do the experiences of people who live there, which is one of the reasons that Vienna gives for her decision to reside there. Far from wanting to be one of those people who swooped in to try and ‘save’ the city, she simply wants to experience it and to add to the growing number of positive influences in the community at large.
The inclusion of the song The Breaking Light on the album speaks volumes about this. The song was co-written with Alex Wong in the days following the Fukushima natural disasters that destroyed homes, businesses, and factories, and caused the failure of the city’s nuclear power plant. There are parallels to be drawn between Fukishima and Detroit, even though what has affected each city is very different. In both cases, though, while people who are not from either place see only the bad news and then, generally, no news, the reality is that the people from each place are repairing, rebuilding, and recovering, in some cases through sheer stubbornness and the resolve to do nothing less, and the communities are each stronger for it.
That is why the focus of Aims is, in contrast to the introspective Inland Territory, less about self-discovery and more about the uplifting of the self through the mutual uplifting of the community. The advice given in the first track continues to show through the entire album: “If you are afraid, give more.” And sure, maybe there was no single song on it that affected me on a personal level as much as Recessional did, and still does, but that isn’t the point of Aims at all. The album is more alive, more joyful, and is more cohesive as a whole, just like a community can be so much more than any one person in it. Everyone has their share of advice and criticism, and there is intimacy everywhere, if one knows where to look: between people and each other, between people and the places they call home, and between people and nature, both the seen and unseen.
In short, this album is Vienna as she has always been, laying bare her soul and her experiences. Each song, just like every one of her songs, has a story behind it, and anyone who listens to the album might find something that resonates with them. You will find songs of joy and of sorrow, you will find something intimate and something deeply, profoundly spiritual, and maybe, just maybe, you will be inspired to find the place in your own city where you can inject your own positive force. And if so? Mission accomplished.