Very few articles, interviews, or reviews of the Din of Ecstasy album mention New Machine – a song that many Whitley fans count among his best.
- Geoffrey Himes in The Washington Post gets the title wrong and misses the point: “‘The New Machine’ is a nightmarish vision of Orwellian technology.”
- A review of the Din tour at The Grog Shop (Cleveland OH) described the song as “a mesmerizing dobro workout he delivered solo on his 1939 Regal guitar.”
- In a preview of the Khyber Pass 3-night stand, a writer for The Press of Atlantic City labeled the song “subdued, atonal.”
- Although largely dismissing DoE as “often just more of the same thing that has clogged radio waves and restaurant-bar stages for the last decade,” a reviewer for the Louisville Music News opined that New Machine was a stand-out, though he misses the song’s metaphors: “Next, Whitley performs New Machine with just vocals and National steel guitar. It’s delicious. The lyrics are upgraded too, depicting a bad love affair with images of broken-down engines, blankets under the night skies and gasoline trickling down her thigh.” Yup, that went right over his head ….
Nor do any of these sources note how dramatically the song evolved, from a high-gear, raucous full-band number to a slow, atonal, droning solo. I mean, listen to its early incarnation as played live in Winter/Spring 1992 and then to its final elegance as recorded on Din and played live a gazillion times after:
An early performance (1992-01-23 El Mocambo Toronto) –
As recorded for the CD –
The song’s lyrics change little, if at all. As noted above, some listeners took them literally, as did a woman from Barnes & Noble. Over four years after the release of DoE, she finally heard the lyrics on the Live at Martyrs’ release and was not amused:
Barnes & Noble.com: For the first time, I really caught the lyrics to “New Machine” on LIVE AT MARTYRS. The song is kind of thrilling, but it’s also chilling, at least from a woman’s point of view. Where does that vision of a woman as a machine come from?
Chris Whitley: I’ve often felt misunderstood when I use a relationship as a kind of metaphor in writing. Really, this song is inspired by my feeling like the media is running our culture, and because I’m a guy, I’m using a woman as the highest thing that shouldn’t be messed with. I’m not really into political songs unless you really feel it, and I can sing it and mean it a lot of the time if it’s a “her”‘ or a “you.” It’s not about a woman. My imagery is abstract while most of the lyrics in pop and folk music are kind of literal.
Lyrics the same, but the music? A total transformation, although my tin ears seem to hear notes/chords – whatever – that are fundamentally the same in both versions. Several ATCW group members have commented on the opening chord:
Justin: Ever wonder why when you play New Machine for someone for the first time, they grimace at the opening chord work as though something is wrong? [Justin’s answer – which I’m writing a separate blog post about – can be encapsulated as “The dissonance! Oh, the dissonance!”]
Tyler: When he slams into that first dissonant chord, rather than strum it.. you better pay attention.
El Wud: I always thought it was one of the most beautiful and powerful chords and a magnificent way to open a song. It’s like an exclamation mark, but at the start, not the end.
Musically, Machine evolved into a beautiful song that, to me, captures what Chris meant by ‘din of ecstasy’; it’s oddly atonal, but ecstatically so. I greatly prefer where Machine ended up more than where it started, especially as performed so gorgeously in this video from House of Blues:
In an interview with Anil Prasad [“Melancholic Resonance” as published in Innerviews], Chris described his frame of mind as he composed the songs for Din:
From a musical vantage point, it was me going back to my roots. I felt Living with the Law didn’t have an edge that I always felt. With Din of Ecstasy, I went back to my teenage thinking of louder, aggressive and visceral. It was a power trio album. I was trying to articulate some edginess I grew up with like Led Zeppelin, Hendrix, Cream, and The Doors. Also, I was breaking up with my wife of 13 years and dealing with my own morality issues. I realized that maybe a lightning bolt wouldn’t strike me if I split up with her. I was also madly in love with someone else at the time. I was asking myself a lot of questions like “What is my dogma about relationships? Why do people stay together when they’re not happy? Why is it called love when it’s a need? Why is it called sexual fulfillment when it’s just fucking?” That’s where the content for the album came from. It was a social response to a personal, intimate thing. I was trying to articulate all of that stuff, but I think I lost some people with that album because it wasn’t just a guy screaming out loud. The sound of the record itself resonated more with people than the impetus that motivated the writing. That might have resulted from my own musical indulgences.
Whatever the impetus, whatever indulgence it might have been, how anyone can listen to New Machine and not be blown away is beyond me. Here’s Chris recording the song at Sony Studios (NYC, NY):
Epic. For my money, Machine should have stopped evolving right there. Nonetheless, during the Rocket House tour, the RH band occasionally joined in when Chris played New Machine. Listen to DJ Logic scratching along [not my cup of tea] at the Fox Theatre on the Live Music Archive. Or this [again, to me] strange performance with band mates at Theater of the Living Arts (Philly, 2001-07-08):
Sometimes you can take a good thing too far ….
Update: How could I omit Tyler’s favorite NM performance! He especially likes Chris’s ‘attack’ here.