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Perennials Volume 37: "What is the What"

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This week's dispatch is a little longer (also a little more intense) than usual, but we hope that you'll still give it a read and some thought...

In 2006, Dave Eggers published a novel based on the life of one of the 'Lost Boys of the Sudan', a group of nearly 20,000 children displaced by civil war in that country. Some of these boys were conscripted as soldiers and forced to fight. Others wandered across the land together into Ethiopia to refugee camps that weren't necessarily happy to have them. Countless died. This week's Perennial 'What is the What' takes its title as well as some of its themes from that book. The song also draws from our own mixture of awe, discomfort, sympathy, admiration, sadness, and confusion when it comes to relating to our own friends and loved ones who have experienced warfare first hand, and who have been irrevocably changed because of it.

This song's narrator is alone, in a forest, fighting for his life alongside others who are doing the same - which is to say that it is at once a song of terrible solitude yet also one of camaraderie. Its musical elements also hang in a tense balance. On one hand it is as stripped down as we get: piano, cello, mandolin, and vocals. On the other, it is sonically massive, multilayered and barely contained.

On a more personal note, this song is perhaps one of my (Paul's) favorite collaborations ever. I wrote the piano bit while in the midst of an incredible workload with only a tiny speck of an idea for what it could be. Then Danny took it and transformed it into a spectacular tapestry of remorse by adding layer upon layer of lyrical rounds. Danny did all of this under the strain of a family tragedy that took the wind out of all of us. He turned his pain into something beautiful, which, in my opinion is one of the most noble things you can do.

And if I (Danny) may say so, it was only because Paul had the wherewithal and generosity to give me his music to work with that I was able to put word to thought and lyric to emotion. I lost an uncle, who was himself a solider in a terrible war, and What is the What is also for him.

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Featured Video: "The Understanding"

Directed by Adam Reid - Starring Danny Pudi & Monica West


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The Understanding - Single - Jones Street Station


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