Stream “Ixcatan” below:
The guitar that fades in from the matte brown surface of Romantica’s America to introduce “Ixcatan” is black and pale gold, strumming a dusty, elemental shuffle. Awash in papery tremolo and a hollow, sepulchral delay, it is the soul of the song the way breath is the soul of a man. Against it, around it, unwinds an echo-laden electric, unspooling from between the cracks of the rhythm guitar like ivy breaking out through bricks. One the foundation, the respiration, the theme; the other the ornament, the voice, the commentary. They dance like this throughout the song.
In fact, aside from the low, smooth support of the bass, these are the only two voices that shore up singer Ben Kyle’s tale of betrayal and revenge for the greater part of its distance. The slight chuff of Kyle’s palm against his guitar is the only rhythmic accompaniment.
The story opens like a newspaper lede: “A man was shot right through the hand / yesterday in Ixcatan.” Ixcatan is a small town in Mexico in the mountains north of Gudalajara, and yesterday is, of course, the day before today. But placing the event yesterday makes it the subject of rumor, of news, of the spread of gossip. It is the time of drunken revelry remembered in the hangover, of rash action in the cold light of the present. Yesterday is removed, but not gone, from today.
The man is also unknown—a man, and not a name or a relative—and as for the motive: “Nobody knows why. / We saw the shooter fly.” And so, delicately, Kyle has placed the narrator in the song, not as an actor, but as an observer. He sees a “late model Chevrolet, / through the dust of a dying day. / The fear of God dripping from his hands / like the blood that was dripping in Ixcatan.”
The vocal melody runs up and down alongside the electric lead, the voices answering each other in call and response and swishing in slow circles across the hardwood floor of the acoustic. And so the song slides effortlessly into the major key of the chorus, the keening wail of a pedal steel suffusing Kyle’s words with thick, late afternoon sunlight. “They held him up,” he sings, “down in Ixcatan, / but the blood of a bull / ain’t the blood of a man.” The bull is a mystery—we haven’t heard anything of him yet—but such is the fertile power of the well-tuned chorus; as the verse propels the story forward by inching increments in “Ixcatan,” so the chorus ties the events to an undercurrent of emotion and allegory. For now, it’s enough for the above lines to feed the chorus’ pivot: “One’s for love, / the other for pain. / But you can’t tell that / from the colour of the stain.”
Just as the chorus’ imagery and wounded judgment is beginning to sink in, the song falls away back into the second verse, which rejoins the narrative in detective novel fashion: “Meanwhile on the mountain side, / a bull was being killed for a Spanish bride.” Ah ha: the bull returns, as does the blood: “The men were in the river washing blood from their hands. / The wedding’s gonna be in Ixcatan.”
And then the threads begin to intertwine. “The policia were looking for the crazy man / put a bullet through the middle of a young man’s hand. / They were down at the river with their automatic guns; / the groom was washing up in the evening sun.” That’s as much resolution as you’re going to get from the plot itself. Kyle has again pulled the camera back, not forcing the action, but simply documenting it, leaving it up to the listener to draw conclusions. The vision we end the verse with is of the police at the river and the groom washing his hands and the implication then begins to make itself clear: It was the groom who shot the young man, although the exact circumstances remain cloudy.
When the chorus returns, it makes more literal sense: Now we can see the bull as a sacrifice for the happiness of the marriage, and we can choose to see the blood of the young man as a similar sacrifice in the name of revenge. “One’s for love, / the other for pain.” But the ultimate judgment calls into question every notion of tradition, heritage, revenge, or, in fact, any kind of violence, because you can’t surmise reason “from the colour of the stain.” Was it the groom who shot the young man? And why did it happen? We can’t know, and not just because we don’t have all the facts but fundamentally because violence begets blood, and the stain endures longer than actions and motivations.
This is the gentle, brilliant sway that Romantica lulls you into with every facet of “Ixcatan.” The music leads you from minor to major and back, the lyrics dilating and focusing—from rich textural details like the late model Chevrolet and the policia’s automatic guns to fat, resonant words like love, pain, and blood, blood, blood—the whole song moving from specific to universal in slowly shushing waves. Its spareness is of such a startlingly beautiful quality because of its indelibly handmade feel, each line in its essentialness sprained lightly against the song’s center. It has that truly rare feel in man-made things of being both breathingly alive and meticulously crafted.
There’s a high, light acoustic guitar strum that softly enters the song at the top of the second chorus, and it’s this guitar’s tiny, forlorn chords that lead the song into its long ebb into silence. A brushed drumset enters during this outro, shoring up Kyle’s hushed and repeated whispering of the chorus’ final two lines and stringing the song into the distance like poles holding up power lines that stretch off to the horizon.
With a final, soft cymbal crash, the song is gone. Now: cue it up again.
COMING UP: Romantica play “Rock Out for Epilepsy: A Music Event to Benefit Youth Affected by Seizures” with Andrew Broder, Black Blondie, and Mouthful of Bees on Thursday, July 31. Varsity Theater . 7 pm. $10. 18+.