We are back to a New Wave sound with “No New Kinda Story”, but it is, I think, for a specific purpose this time. Everything about this song – the sound, the lyrics and the video are a response to Joy Division’s “Atmosphere”. I will not say it is a homage. It is more like a counterpoint someone makes in an argument. Listen to the two songs back to back and you can hear the similarities. You hear it most in the synthesizers. Listen at how Ian Curtis emphasizes the first syllable of a line only to alternate on a later line to emphasize the next to last syllable. Then listen JM and you can hear him mirroring this approach.
But it is the differences that intrigue me. “Atmosphere” is a somber landscape. “No New Kinda Story” is peppy in comparison; you can tell that the emphasis in the music is to feel good and hopeful. Curtis’ vocals cry for connection and to be heard, to be understood. JM’s vocals are steady; his voice seeks to tell you how it is. It is almost matter of fact.
“Atmosphere” is a song that people often think of when contemplating Curtis’ suicide at the age of 23. The lyrics show Curtis begging for connection, imploring another (or perhaps himself) not to give up and walk away. But the lyrics also describe the crippling isolation Curtis felt suffering from depression and epilepsy. He describes how life is so much easier for other people. By contrast, JM’s lyrics tell us that life is really not that bad. We just have to learn how to live out the love that we read about. In comparing the two songs, it is apparent to me that JM’s lyrics are written from a place of privilege. He is a white, heterosexual, middle class Christian male. He is nearly at the top of the social food chain. Things might not be so easy for someone who struggles with disabilities and illnesses. But the misstep here is one of naivete; it is no where near the judgement of The Fashion Focus. This song shows how much JM has grown. And it is nice to believe in the hope and simplicity offered in “No New Kinda Story”.
In order to understand the video for this song, we have to look at its inspiration. The video for “Atmosphere” was directed by Anton Corbijn (who also directed videos for Depeche Mode and U2 around this time). Corbijn likes to film in black and white, showing people in strange costumes walking in striking landscapes while pondering existential realities. In “Atmosphere”, we see figures in white robes with positive symbols on the backs of the robes and figures in black robes with a negative symbols. These robed figures carry large pictures of Ian Curtis through the desert, showing how the the positive and negative aspects of his life carried him through step by step. It is a moving and complex requiem for a troubled person who succumbed to his struggles.
We see the same visual style replicated in the video for “No New Kinda Story”. It is filmed in black and white. It opens with the image of a baby boy in a crib covered in a white sheet. It is the soul incarnate, innocent and frail. The next shot is three women in white robes walking over a rocky landscape followed by two horses (or, I should say, men dressed as horses). These figures appear to be Greek and at first I thought they might be Greek goddesses; but I think they are actually angels. This makes a certain kind of sense. Most of our imagery of angels is based off Renaissance era art and the Renaissance artists stole heavily from the Romans. Of course, the Roman stole everything from the Greeks. Also, it is the Greeks who first came up with the idea of the soul and this video is all about the journey of a soul.
Next we see an old man in a business suit and hat riding an escalator. This old man is the baby from the beginning of the video. Notice that he rides an escalator instead of walking wherever he is going. He is content to be pulled along a predetermined path rather than making his own. As he rides up the escalator, we see one of the angels watching him from a distance. He steps off the escalator. Next we see him walking out of a corporate building or perhaps a medical office. He pounds his newspaper into his open palm as he walks out the door. We see a brief shot of the angel walking on a rocky shore by the ocean. We return to the old man who is still slapping the newspaper in his hand. Something is worrying him; he is agitated.
The shots then quickly alternate between the old man driving his car and the angel walking on the rocky shore. We see a long shot of the angel’s face but it is blurry. Just as the image comes into focus, she closes her eyes to show that she has eerily realistic eyes drawn on her eyelids as her face turns toward the camera lens – to show that she is always watching. She closes her eyes in time with the synthesizer hit in the music that launches the brief, creepy sounding bridge.
The old man is struggling in his car as smoke billows out of the dashboard. I don’t know if this is intended to imply that he had a collision or if he was committing suicide. I would lean toward intentional carbon monoxide poisoning given the allusions to “Atmosphere”, but the logical part of my brain screams that cannot be it because carbon monoxide does not generate smoke. The old man struggles to breath and waves his hat in front if his face to clear the air. We see the face of the angel on the other side of the driver’s side window. The old man reaches toward the window and the door to get out. A black robed hand of a man holds the door shut from outside.
Just as the creepy bridge ends in the song and we return to major keys, the angel opens the car door. The old man slumps forward. He is dead. The angel reaches for him and touches his hand. He stands up while staring at her in confusion. He is not struggling to breath anymore.
We see the angel guiding the old man over the rocky shore. He sits down at a chessboard set on a rock. He looks forward to see his opponent. A man in a black robe gestures while he talks. We do not know what he is saying. I would guess that he is supposed to represent the Devil or a demon, but, really, he just reminds me of Brain Guy from Mystery Science Theater 3000. Brain Guy sits at the chessboard opposite the old man and, of course, he plays with the black pieces.
The old man is nervous as he stares at his opponent. He makes his opening move. Brain Guy makes his countermove and talks some more smack. The angels and horses are watching in the background. We see the image of an egg on white background, perhaps another image representing the soul. Images of the angels and the chess game are mixed with images of food being smashed by a hammer. Brain Guy keeps winning the chess game, knocking over one of the white pieces. The egg is smashed by the hammer. The soul is broken.
The old man takes off his hat. He knows he is beaten. He will not win the battle for his soul. We see the angels and horses walking in a line on the rocky beach like they did at the beginning of the video. The shot of the egg being hit by the hammer is played in reverse and the egg becomes whole again. Brain Guy makes his final chess move, knocking over a white piece. We see the line of angels again, but now the old man is walking between the horses as they guide him over the rocky terrain. The video closes with an image of the empty crib.
The old man has been saved by divine intervention. The angels who watched him his whole life were present during the fight for his soul. When the old man could not win that battle on his own, they save him from Brain Guy. This video raises some interesting theological questions. Did the chess game occur in Purgatory? It happens after his death. Is it possible to be saved after death? Did the old man chose to be saved or was it already predestined that he would be saved? We don’t see him choosing to follow the angels. I believe the Martins are Presbyterian so a Calvinistic interpretation could be probable. It’s a little bit foreign to me, but, hey, how often can you watch a rock video and end up contemplating Calvinism?
If my instincts are right and this song is a response to “Atmosphere”. I think it shows that JM was troubled by the way things ended for Ian Curtis and wanted to reconcile that in some way. The message of the song is a response to the despair Curtis felt. It is part soothing (things are not that bad) and part instructional (this is what we need to live out the all love that we read). The video tells a story about how there may be a path to salvation for Curtis or people like him even though we may not observe it in the mortal realm. The angels are always watching. God is always present. We are never so lost that a hand cannot reach us to guide us over the rocky shores.