Retrospective: Harvey Milk’s “Courtesy and Good Will Toward Men”

Courtesy_and_Good_Will_Toward_Men

In 1996, experimental stoner/doom band Harvey Milk released their second album, Courtesy and Good Will Toward Men. It’s one of those records that really sticks with you. I first heard it last year in the spring, after finding it in an offhand list of albums that were important to someone else. I’ve been thinking of it as a lost doom classic, one that challenges the genre and pushes its emotional and sonic boundaries.

Courtesy and Good Will Toward Men isn’t a typical doom record at all, except for in two crucial ways: the weighty sound of the guitars and the sense of crushing devastation throughout. Other than that, the song structures are unpredictable, with tracks switching from acoustic to heavy and back in a manner of seconds. There’s piano and organ, the band makes prominent use of a triangle, and there’s even a Leonard Cohen cover near the end of the album.

As these elements confound and contradict one another, they each pound out the same idea: that there is triumph and strength in sadness. Thinking of other great doom records, (take YOB’s Clearing the Path to Ascend, for example) that’s ultimately been what makes them memorable; they make roaring in pain sound like strength. They carry on even though the guitar sounds like someone beating their head against a wall in despair. Then, as we see at the end of “My Broken Heart Will Never Mend,” that lead guitar comes in and temporarily relieves it all. Or, think of the tiny, quiet resolution in the last few seconds of “I Feel Miserable.” There’s always a tiny glimmer of hope.

Songs like “Brown Water” and “Sunshine (No Sun) Into the Sun” mix noise and folk, juxtaposing sunnier moments against thunderous doom. The beginning of “Sunshine” sounds like it’s going to be an acoustic folk song, and then all of a sudden, the song descends into one of the noisiest, most downtuned parts of the whole album, and then the band pounds on a single string and drum for almost two minutes. Or on “A Good Thing Gone,” there’s quiet whispering next to all the heaviness. It’s like the album is acknowledging that even when things seem utterly terrible, there’s a faint trace of a smile. Or maybe it’s the other way around: when you think things are going well, all of a sudden things are difficult again.

The other contrast the band embraces is the fragile against the heavy. It intensifies the power of the few notes the band plays on guitar. There are utterly private moments on the album, painfully human touches like the buzzing of strings on “I Feel Miserable,” or the near-crying at the end of “One of Us Cannot Be Wrong.” A triangle appears prominently starting with the track “Go Back to France,” and it might be my most favorite element on the record, especially as it’s used on “Boy with the Bosoms.” It seems like a winking acknowledgement of how meditative and pummeling the rest of the song is, just lightening it enough.

The reason this album is so inspiring is that it seems to be a manifestation of the idea that even though shit is rough and hard, it’s still possible to soldier on. There’s a kind of victory in keeping on too. I think that’s why I always listen in the spring, because even though winter is dark and long, it won’t always be that way. By the end, the sunlight is already peeking through the clouds.

-Joy

Live. Love. Plow. Horns Up.

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