Unless you happen to find yourself preternaturally blessed, there are going to be times when the demons get a toehold and life becomes a cruel test. If you’re to live on planet Earth, you have to accept the fact that relationships end, people die, and illness (both physical and mental) can strike at any time.
The members of Portland choral-pop group Ages and Ages went through some big changes between the recording of the band’s debut disc, 2011’s Alright You Restless, and the recently released Divisionary. There were triumphs, including marriages and the birth of children. And there were plenty of dark days, including the loss of close friends and family members. Through the bleak stretches, singer and band cofounder Tim Perry realized that even when things look particularly hopeless, all of us have a choice. You can either plunge headfirst into the abyss, or you can keep your chin up and battle through to better days.
One listen to the bright-eyed and uplifting Divisionary, and it’s obvious which path Perry, bassist Rob Oberdorfer, and their collaborators in Ages and Ages chose to take. Reached on the line from his home in Portlandia, the singer-guitarist admits that he often finds himself wondering what the hell is wrong with the world and the human beings that populate it. At the same time, he realizes there’s a good and ultimately positive reason for his anger.
“There are many times that I’m basically frustrated and angry at people,” Perry admits. “The reason that I get upset ultimately boils down to the reason that I ultimately love people. I love life, and I have hope and I want things to be better for people. I want them to live up to their potential, I want them to be healthy, and I want them to be able to actualize their dreams. It’s because I love them that I’m able to feel so passionately upset and disappointed.
“I think that’s something that’s important to keep in perspective,” he continues. “If you were an apathetic person, truly a ‘fuck you’ kind of guy, you wouldn’t give a shit. You’d look at people saying stupid things, doing stupid things, and you’d literally laugh at it. It is funny because you’re detached, but because you care, it also upsets you.”
That world-view certainly colours Divisionary, a record that’s guaranteed to please anyone with an undying affection for the likes of Sufjan Stevens and the Polyphonic Spree. Like those acts, Ages and Ages operates on the loose principle that there is no such thing as bringing too many musicians to the party. The group includes (but is not always limited to) percussionist Sarah Riddle, guitarist John McDonald, keyboardist Becca Schultz, guitarist Annie Bethancourt, drummer Levi Cecil, and percussionist Jade Brings Plenty. Everyone sings, which leads to moments of full-blown rapture on reach-for-the-heavens tracks like “Divisionary (Do the Right Thing)”. At the same time, Ages and Ages isn’t solely determined to sound like Sunday-morning church service in Chapel Hill, with Divisionary taking welcome, um, diversions into the acid-dosed ’60s (“Over It”), the radio-pop ’70s (“I See More”), and crimson-sunset country (“No Pressure”).
No matter what genre Ages and Ages is dipping its toes into, Perry and his bandmates sound thrilled to be alive. That’s not an accident, but instead a choice. A thoughtful and interesting interview subject, Perry understands how some people turn depressing times in their lives into even more depressing art.
“I learned, really early in school, the word sublimation,” he says. “There are some people who have tendencies or urges to do very bad things, like kill or do vicious crimes. But instead of doing so, they express that through their art. It’s a process of sublimation where they can get these urges out without committing a crime. And I think it’s perfectly fair that some people would totally focus on one thing in their art, whatever it might be. You can focus on the dark stuff without any way out but can still live a productive life and have healthy relationships. But then you also get people like Kurt Cobain and Elliott Smith.”
While some crawl into holes they are never able to escape from, Perry is of the opinion that art can be used for working through life’s rough patches. All you have to do is look on the sunny side, even when things look darker than the Pacific Northwest in November.
“The irony of the comedian is that they are constantly looking at life in terms of how it is funny,” he says. “They are able to express that in ways that make people laugh, and yet if you look at most comedians they are dark people who are deeply depressed. That’s their way of making light of these realities and coping with that. I think it’s the same for a lot of artists. People who are moved enough to create art tend to be really passionate about these kinds of things.
“So on my dark days, or my sad times, it’s deeply dark and sad and difficult,” Perry continues. “And likewise for my happy days. I think that overall, that’s what I’m trying to achieve in this music, and this band, is a catharsis. That taking and observing the difficulties and the conflicts and the downfalls—everything that’s painful—and being honest about it in a very constructive way.”
Ages and Ages plays the Rickshaw Theatre next Wednesday (June 25).