Sometimes I listen to music and write about it. Mostly I write about music that’s new to me. Sometimes I write about music I’ve heard before. Sometimes I write about that ancient song, the whispered hymn emanating from the heavens, coming to me and only me, overwhelming me with its sadness as old as time, forcing me to my knees as I cry out, unheard over the ethereal chorus while pedestrian masses amble past me en route to their dull jobs, their dull classes, their dull dinners with their dull loved ones, their dull lives. But most of the time it’s music from my to-do list. This is one of those times.
Peter Peter Hughes – Fangio (2010)
Juan Manuel Fangio is a legendary Formula 1 driver who was active in the 1950s. He won the World Championship of Drivers five times and still holds the highest win percentage in the history of F1 (46% of the races he entered). Hailing from Argentina, Fangio was also a folk hero to his countrymen as political tensions began to rise in the early roots of the Dirty War and the military coup of the Perón leadership. Fangio refused to comment on the Argentinian Dirty War, always feigning disinterest in politics or ignorance to the situation. This act has upset a lot of people, especially Argentinians who looked to him as a hero—the Dirty War was one of the darkest times of Argentinian history—15-30,000 people died/disappeared in what appears to be a US-led battle against Soviet influence in South America. Fangio died in 1995, never having acknowledged the war.
This album is an alternate history that reads “one part DC comics, one part Tom Clancy Novel, and one part Marxist revolutionary tract,” according to PPH himself. Jean Manual Fangio is NOT ACTUALLY DEAD or indifferent to the Dirty War, but was subjected to some sort of Borgesian spatiotemporal displacement and has since “gone underground as a sort of international rogue agent, beholden to nobody and determined to clear his conscience by evening the score: against the CIA, against the cartels, against every agent of oppression that conspired to terrorize and exploit the people of Latin America over the last half century.”
The description alone reads like gold tablets from the heavenly father himself, the most perfect word brought forth from the heavens to fulfill that which my soul has seeked in its whole life. I was really excited to sink my teef into this album (wellllllllll…actually it’s a two-track 7″ and an LP but they’re meant to pair) after I heard about it last winter, but didn’t get around to it until last week.
My first reaction to the opening number, a vast cinematic six-minuter, was pure joy. It came off as something like a cross between Year Zero, a Muse album opening track, and a post-industrial resurrection of New Order. The song introduces the basic premise of the album’s storyline: “I struck a sinner’s bargain / late one summer night / not to be a hero / but for the chance to make things right”, with the most climactic bit of narration coming with the triumphant cry of “I’m more than an assassin / and I’m not a hired gun / I’m Operational Detachment Juan Manuel Fangio / I’m a special force of one.”
The rest of the songs span a wide range of experimental musical styles—sing-along, movie score, a seeming Trent Reznor/Madonna collab. Meanwhile, our hero Fangio’s story progresses though assassination missions, womanizing, kidnapping, escape, and a painful emotional breakdown at the warlike mortality rates of mid-century automobile racing (complete w/ parallels to the ongoing war in his homecountry).
The last song is probably the most motivated. Dissatisfied with his vengeance-fueled mission, Fangio reflects on himself and the root of his motivation. He replays internal footage of his experiences, scenes from his childhood, the pain of waiting for the feeling of redemption that never comes after each kill, the addiction-like chase for the high of justice that never seems to satisfy his cravings. Where did this need come from, the need inside of him to make things right? Where was this throughout the rest of his life? He is a foreign body to himself; he is a broken man, lost to himself, a blurred personality.
In the last verse of the album, he comes to the conclusion that:
I was courageous, a hero on the track
and off it I was not
I watched my countrymen
sent off to their deaths
and I never said a word
instead I used my celebrity and my fame
and I hid behind my name as a shield
a fucking shield
when it should have been a sword
when it should have been a sword
This, to me, is indistinguishable from PPH’s own criticism of Fangio, though this conclusion is consistent with Fangio’s emotional development over the course of the album. In the end, Fangio fails at his mission of redemption and comes to a conclusion we can all relate to: it’s too late. His chance has passed. The past is gone and he is powerless to rewrite it. Oddly enough, in this realization, PPH has sort of cleared and redeemed Fangio in the listener’s world, implanting righteous intention into him and citing fear, regret, ontological stagnation, and cosmic paralyzation as the root of his failure to condemn the War. Perhaps this story is little more than a justification tale by someone who is clearly quite the Fangio fanboy, or perhaps PPH is just defending a figure who he sympathizes with, a man thrown into fame, a man unprepared for the demands of the life that comes with fame. Perhaps justice really is served in the end, and Fangio can rest peacefully in his grave.
(Note: the Fangio tag on Peter Hughes’ blog was an invaluable resource for this review.)