At the 3:05 mark of “wasting art”, the first track of attack art hurt art’s debut album regression and everything after, Kian Khalilian’s shimmering guitar leads sweep in after Drew Cowen finishes singing a relatable narrative of staying in bed to avoid conflict. This song sets the tone for regression and everything after as it explores humanity’s cyclical regression to natural conflict on an interpersonal and an existential level. attack art, hurt art uses the words “attack”, “hurt” or “art” in every song title of the album to establish that there is an art to the way humans interact and humanity hurts itself by continually regressing instead of dealing with the problems we’ve created. The main theme of regression and everything after can be summed up by a line from “attack donald”, the sixth track on the album, where Khalilian’s sings, “history’s repetition knows no border.” The rich cohesive content of regression and everything after was recorded in only two days by friend of attack art, hurt art, Alex Morton in Norfolk, VA. Morton played drums on some of the songs as well.
2. crowd art
The second track on the album, “crowd art” is a two-part song where Cowen explores the struggle of performing to a crowd that does not understand him. Cowen and Khalilian juxtapose the stark anxieties and somber guitar riffs in the first half of the song with a sobering trance of ethereal harmonies. Cowen explains how he will “never find peace of mind” and how he “left it all in California, summer of ‘08.” Cowen told me that peace of mind was a “really nice camping trip, the summer before [he] entered middle school”. Although new folk-punks on the block, attack art, hurt art has already played multiple shows in Norfolk and Harrisonburg, so they chose to sing about the complicated relationship between themselves and the crowd. The closing lyrics of the song, “The music is dying down, I can hear the crowd talking about their lives it has nothing to do with me.” reflect the misunderstood isolation a performer may feel when playing in front of so many people yet feeling disconnected from them.
3. attack donald
The unforgivingly titled, “attack donald” opens with bright acoustic guitar chords and is starkly juxtaposed with the beginning lyrics, “German expressionism had it right, let's freak out/Let's use canted angles to reinforce our doubts” German expressionism used techniques liked canted angles to expose the public madness and unrest with the state of instability and fear within Germany after World War I. During the expressionist period, German expressionist artists became much more politically and socially charged in their art.
Commenting on if he thought present day artists of all forms had a responsibility to use their voice to speak out against the divisive instability facing America after the 2016 presidential election, similar to German expressionist artists after World War I, Cowen simply stated, ““I think most art reflects the emotional state of the people making it. A lot of people are really stressed out right now. The fact that so many artists are writing anti-Trump songs demonstrates a kind of collective "fuck-you."
The first half of “attack donald” concludes with Cowen’s lyrics “This was my conscience, it was reminding me / That you're part of a system and you profit from it, but you act / like you're suffering / I'll give it all back, eventually. Is the attitude of every white male / like me.” With these lines Cowen explains that because of all their various unbalanced privileges, white males have a lot of space and representation to give back. Cowen consciously fights the regression of history in the final lines, consciously facing his “prejudices” and “anxieties” in order to “give it all back”.
4. childhood art
The following track, “childhood art”, explains how religion and problematic exclusivity play a significant role in internalizing prejudices such as xenophobia in children. A somber math-rock influenced guitar riff paired with Khalilian’s finely executed lead guitar harmonies serve as Cowen’s metronome as he uses stark poetic juxtapositions like, “A childhood expressed through xenophobia and coloring books / and clubs with passwords / to keep the weird neighbor kid / out.” to explain how the art of his childhood was not innocent. Cowen uses such harsh contrasts to deliver the message that without critical analysis of one’s past one may never recognize and work to overcome internalized childhood prejudices like xenophobia.
Cowen ends the spoken word portion of “childhood art” speaking as the children in the song, stating, “Let’s glorify violence because we watched Star Wars too much last / night. / I’ll attack you with a stick if you attack me. / Blow by blow, / one for the other.” Khalilian’s hauntingly spacious harmonies introduce the second part of the song in which Cowen realistically analyzes his past and sings with conviction “I’ll expose all my woes, I’ll put light on the page”. Morton’s drums paired with Cowen and Khalilian’s guitars reach a musical crescendo, echoing Cowen’s message that unapologetically analyzing the internalized conflicts in one’s past are key to growing out of them in the future.
5. american art
“american art” is the most gripping song on the album because of the way Kian Khalilian told a story of a refugee who “yearns only to breathe with her family” later mentioned in the song, Ashraf, Sara, and Zubair and their father. After my first listen of "american art" I was devastated and shocked after hearing the abrupt ending with no musical resolution, just Khalilian’s narrative conclusion of Ashraf, Sara, and Zubair’s father with “dust inside his lungs” as “bubba was failing to breathe.”
Through masterfully concise songwriting, Khalilian introduces each sibling and describes their talents during each chord change, “Ashraf likes to swim, Sara is good at math, Zubair likes to write poetry.” After multiple listens and talking with Khalilian I learned he was delivering a much more relevant sociopolitical message through using the name, “Zubair” for one of the siblings.
On October 24th, 2012, the day before the Islamic holy day of Eid-al-Adha, thirteen year-old Zubair Rehman was at his home in North Waziristan with his grandmother when a drone strike killed her and injured himself and his nine-year-old sister, Nabila. In the first briefing in which members of Congress could hear directly from Pakistani victims of American drone strikes, Zubair made a statement concerning the effect drone warfare had on him, “I no longer love blue skies. In fact, now I prefer cloudy days when the drones don’t fly. When the sky brightens and becomes blue, the drones return and so does the fear.”
Khalilian has studied psychology at JMU and is currently majoring in philosophy, so I asked him what kind of psychological damage he thought connecting comfort with gray skies from fear of drone strikes may have on a young teenager.
He stated, “A clear sky can become terrifying if it is necessary for evil actions. This isn’t a question of the efficacy of drone warfare with respect to a war on terror, this is an explanation with respect to the etiology of terrorism. This isn’t to imply that any more than a small fraction of middle eastern Muslims are or will ever become radicals. This is to say that all, so termed, terrorists, feel the need to act as they do in response to a force that has shaped their world, as understood, in truth, into one for which this radical and violent appropriation of jihad feels necessary and justified. I think as the military tools of the US and Russia (the forces in question) become more sophisticated and deadly, so too will this force of radicalization, as well as sympathy for these dangerous and radicalizing groups.”
Khalilian also prefaces the introduction of Ashraf, Sara, and Zubair, by stating that, “1953 should live in infamy”. I think it’s fair to interpret Khalilian’s lyrics as referring to the 1953 Iranian coup d’état, engineered by the CIA and British forces, (code named AJAX) of elected prime minister, Mohammad Mosaddegh based on an interest in Iran’s oil production. This coup was an unforgivable catalyst to the rule of dictator Ayatollah Khomeini, and his predecessor, Seyyed Ali Kahamenei. This coup instigated by the U.S. and British forces also led to the U.S.’s hegemonic aid to both Iran and Iraq in the Iran-Iraq war (1980-1988) and the current conflict between the United States and the Middle-East which has caused many Iranian citizens to immigrate from their home country to America.
Khalilian also states in “american art” that “red, white, and green’s just a shade away don’t you see?” I asked him if he thought there was a problem with the way Americans perceive what American identity is, and his answer focused on one’s heritage and culture, “I tend to claim the identity of Iranian-American or Persian-American, I rarely hear my friends of European descent claim British-Americanness or German-Americanness, nor even something as broad as European-American. Hell even in saying I’m Iranian-American my Italian/European heritage is sort of lumped into the American half.”
He went on to explain to me the importance of one’s culture and heritage and what the two had to do with identity, “My maternal grandmother grew up in similar shoes as mine. She was the daughter of two Sicilian immigrants. She still cuts the last syllable off of ricotta, though she doesn’t speak Italian, in the same way, that I pronounce the voiced velar fricative in Ghorm-e Sabzi, though I don’t speak Farsi. She identified as Italian-American in the same way that I identify as Iranian-American. Newcomers with a new culture to contribute.”
Khalilian went on to explain “I foresee that in the same way that I don’t think to identify as an Italian-American, but can make a mean Italian-wedding soup, my grandchildren may not Identify as Iranian-Americans, but will surely know how to make Ghorm-e Sabzi. I think the importance of one’s heritage is one’s culture while identification, in a perfect world, would be secondary.”
6. hurt donald
Where “american art” ends abruptly with the listener questioning why Zubair’s family and other’s like his are torn apart by political figures, “hurt donald” leaves no rock unturned and no alternative fact un-checked. “hurt donald” is a turning point in regression and everything after because Khalilian starts the song singing about how he thinks it’s funny how he’s trying to write a personal song for validation as his country “falls to the ground.” This song embodies an exasperating moment when the existential conflicts aligned with Trump’s presidency in 2017 became apart of Khalilian’s personal conflicts. Khalilian expands on this contrast between personal and existential struggle with imagery of Khalilian “still trying to fill a hole in [his] soul, while they drill for oil in the National Parks” and “building walls with money from the arts, building walls with money from Ivan’s healthcare”
Khalilian further exposes the cyclical formation of oppressive political leaders and how society plays a significant role in their own future. Khalilian unapologetically criticizes The Ayatollah and “his Christain counterparts over here” with lines like “history’s repetition knows no border.” Khalilian unflinchingly explains the similarities between the actions of Donald Trump and the Ayatollah; ideologies Trump’s administration claims to be completely against however, the similarities are as clear as the bright seventh chords Khalilian strums as Cowen plays complimentary lead lines.
Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini “abused” “the masses religiosity” of Islam in Iran “for the sake of a power-grab”. Ayetollah led a religious rule over Iran until his death and had killed those who opposed his regime and he appointed seats in office to those sympathetic to his rule. The limitless repetition of history, as Khalilian pointed out, is understood in knowing that Donald Trump has similarly appointed big donors and fundraisers into his cabinet and encouraged rioting against protestors of his extremely problematic campaign. He was able to accomplish these acts by abusing the masses perception of American patriotism into believing America was ‘greater’ in an idealized past. This along with Trump’s xenophobia led to Trump’s Muslim-ban signed on January 27th which banned refugees and immigrants from Syria, Libya, Sudan, Somalia, Yemen, and Iran entry into America and banned American citizens’ entry into those countries. I interpret the culmination of these events to relate significantly with Khalilian’s aforementioned lyric “a student immigrant doesn’t get to home because the masses religiosity was abused for the sake of a power-grab” and how it connects to the first lyric of “american art."
Khalilian goes on to state “I owe my life to bad geopolitical climate” however, that one should not “look on the bright side” and urges people not to “let optimism anesthetize you.” Regressing to optimism for comfort can be problematic for humanity as Khalilian states, “There’s this assumption that the human situation gets better over time, which kind of feels true, and in a lot of ways this is true, but there’s no rule that says it must be true. There’s always a reason for progress, and that reason is always people, groups of people working towards their own goals.”
Khalilian contrasts this ideal of the human situation getting better over time by urging listeners to “make precautions for a future we will prevent”. Concluding “hurt donald” explaining the cyclical formation of corrupt and oppressive political leaders and how they hurt families, Khalilian’s specific word choice is realistic yet hopeful for the sake of survival. By stating that there is a future, that can only be caused by human actions, Khalilian also states this future is one that we will prevent. From Khalilian’s statement, “Optimism, in excess, can be a narcotic, under the influence of which, one may fail to realize their responsibility for the future. Everything that anyone ever does within society contributes to the actualization of someone’s goals.” I inferred Khalilian’s comments to mean that this unwanted future by many is a future that will exist as a result of human action, unless humans prevent it, which he says we will. And one of the ways Khalilian believes we can prevent this feared future is to “march on Washington” and put ourselves “in danger for another’s sake.”
7. morning art
“morning art” thematically follows “hurt donald”, as Cowen struggles with achieving a self-fulfilling day when all of his personal anxieties and the socio-political state of 2017 will also be there when he wakes up. Cowen contrasts feeling useful, yet obtuse, still with craving a culture that doesn’t impose its will of others. The repetition of oppressive political leaders throughout history is understood in Cowen’s lyric, “Youth today are all in, same hair as young Stalin / He was just as bad as Hitler. Did you know that? / Yes I knew that” which calls back to “hurt donald” where Khalilian’s sings “fuck the Ayetollah, fuck his Christian counterparts over here.”
In a way, this song is also a callback to “wasting art” where Cowen whimsically explains how one can plan everything out in bed (“so I stayed in bed for a month, I read a book about decisiveness…”) and “morning art” explains how the morning is the only time Cowen feels he can make something pertinent. Cowen and Khalilian chant “I have all day” initially as a call and response and then in unison. On one hand this conclusion to the song could be interpreted as motivation to be productive. However, on the other hand it can be understood as the procrastinator’s classic excuse to continue putting something off because they have all day.
8. light art
“light art” opens with Cowen plucking a soothing melancholic melody on guitar, focusing on the fleeting details at the end a relationship. Cowen focuses on both perspectives as he illuminates the smallest of movements like, “A hint of understanding in your brow” and by critically analyzing this minute movements he makes the listener feel the tension both people in that situation feel. Raising an eyebrow may take one second in real time, but from the perspective of both people involved, it may take up more time than they are comfortable with forever and its implications are different for each person. Following this line, Cowen sings, “just get up and leave” and the ambiguity of who is speaking can be interpreted as either Cowen speaking to himself or the other person speaking to Cowen. Thematically “light art” fits perfectly near the very end of the album as it showcases Cowen refusing to regress, promising, “I’ll follow through next time I will.”
9. mom art
The album bookends with with “mom art”, a whimsical song with similar themes to “wasting art” and “crowd art”. Cowen struggles with the fact that all his vulnerabilities are immortalized on record and his mother will listen to everyone one of those vulnerabilities because as Cowen simply states, “my mom listens to these songs”. Cowen seems to almost mock the strange process of writing his deepest anxieties in his songs but needing to make them applicable for everyone as a songwriter.
When Cowen sings, “if I make something special for you, you'll finally love me, right?” Cowen and Khalilian whimsically sing “right” in a call-and-response fashion, with Cowen singing “right” and Khalilian echoing him. Khalilian’s inquisitive tone shows attack art, hurt art’s lack of support for the way songwriters are supported by fans. If a person claims to love another person, but only if something special is given to them then they do not honestly love that person. Khalilian and Cowen express this logic by mocking how songwriters are expected to just accept that fans will only love them if artists constantly formulate their inner-struggles into catchy littles tunes for them to consume.
I talked to Cowen and told him how much I loved how all these songs were ordered in such a thematically concise way, he humbly replied, “People always try to put their best songs at the end and "mom art" is a good song, but I don’t think people make it to the end of an album anymore. So I put it at the end 'cuz I know my mom will listen to the end."