2009: Gowns - “Marked”
While their sole full-length Red State garnered all the love, Gowns’ Broken Bones EP might be my favorite release by the all-too-shortly-lived collaboration that brought Erika M. Anderson to the world’s attention. Recorded as part of Southern Records’s Latitudes series, the five-song set was an attempt to capture the live sound of the recently expanded four-piece lineup, resulting in a more forceful and shambolic record than its better-known forerunner. In addition to chaotic re-envisionings of two of Red State’s best tracks (“White Like Heaven” and “Mercy Springs”), the EP boasted a queasy spoken-word piece by Anderson and the hymn-like “Griefer,” one of Ezra Buchla’s most gut-wrenching offerings. And, of course, it also featured an early version of “Marked.”
We are long past the point of looking for “the next Kurt Cobain,” but if you divorce that impulse from the erroneous notion that rock mu$ic can still be some kind of grand, unifying cultural force (if it ever truly was), I think Anderson is about as close as we’ve come to a suitable candidate. Like Cobain, she is adept at weaving surreal, free-associative imagery, and confessional disclosures into a dense personal mythology. There’s no finer example of this in her discography than “Marked.” The song begins with a vision of the speaker’s arms as “bloodless, skinless plastic” and slips from this haunting non-sequitur into heavy meditations on a relationship. “Don’t you know that I would never hurt you/You are such a pretty thing,” Anderson mutters, and we can’t be totally certain who is speaking or why, but when, a few moments later, she begins chanting with increasing fervor, “I wish that every time he touched me left a mark,” it’s hard not to interpret the situation we’re glimpsing as abusive or view her devotion as a kind of Stockhom Syndrome, though no less affecting or keenly felt for that fact. There is a canny artlessness to some of her lines in the song’s back-half (“These drugs are making me so sad/but I can’t stop taking them in”) that, when contrasted with the gruesomely crafted opening imagery, helps render the speaker’s desolation in terms both immediate and genuine.
Most of us received our introduction to the song, along with its companion piece, the a capella “Coda,” as the centerpiece of EMA’s solo debut Past-Life Martyred Saints. We know it as a bruised and vulnerable thing. Anderson’s voice is a husky whisper that cracks when she raises it, like she laid down vocals at the end of a long day when her throat was worn raw from overuse. She sounds exhausted on a spiritual level. Beaten down. Wrung dry. You can hear her fingers screeching up and down the fretboard, striking dead notes that reverberate through the stillness.
By contrast, the Broken Bones rendition is a much more strident affair. The tempo is quicker, the guitar tones less hushed. Jacob Heule’s drums lend a propulsive quality to the rhythm that’s lacking in its more fragile descendant. While the back half of the PNM version dissolves into a cloud of ethereal synth, the Broken Bones version doubles down, with Anderson belting out lyrics that would later make up the “Coda” and then looping back around to the opening lines. If the later iteration of the song is the one you’d hear on MTV Unplugged, then this is the one that would resound across the muddy banks of the Wishkah.
There are other interesting aspects of the arrangement, like the heavily distorted, barely audible voice (Buchla’s I assume? But it could just as easily be Anderson’s own, fed back into the mix) that burbles along just beneath the surface of the main vocals or the soaring backing harmony the band adds to the song’s big finish. Overall, though, it’s not the song’s most appropriate incarnation. The PLMA arrangement gels more organically with the soul-bearing lyrical content, and the many rich textures Anderson assembles bring it to life in a way that feels definitive. Still, “Marked’s” older, harder rocking ancestor offers a delicious alternate take on one of the finest songs written in the past decade.
Young Jeezy’s Let’s Get It: Thug Motivation 101 turned a decade old in July. The seminal work for the Atlanta rapper was honored with a sold-out anniversary concert and critic re-praise, forums reopened debates of its importance, and the aura of 2005 crept back in the room it built. If you were near a radio 10 years ago, you heard “Soul Survivor,” and you recognized the raspy drawl. It was familiar in that it was unmistakably coming out of Atlanta, a city that was becoming rap’s epicenter more and more by the week. While describing Atlanta’s increasing dominance in an excellent write-up of Jeezy’s anniversary show, Rembret Brown points out that Atlanta artists held the top spot of Billboard Hot 100 for 42 of 52 weeks, a trend that abruptly ended in 2005 and left a mega-hit void brought on by Outkast, Usher, and Ludacris in years past.
A clear cut through the stale fog crunk left on Atlanta’s charts was a narrative used by UGK, 8 Ball & MJG, and, for Atlanta, Dungeon Family, and a sound structured two years prior on T.I.’s Trap Muzik. Jeezy pulled a three-way combo, with a trap narrative, Shawty Redd’s now-signature trap sound, and a city-first, us-over-everyone attitude that Atlanta thrives on (cc: Freaknik). But TM101’s colossal boast is its replay value. 2005 saw 50 Cent’s The Massacre earn Billboard’s best-selling album, Urban Legend and Who Is Mike Jones? were 39 and 40 respectively, while Jeezy clocked in at 55. I spent the second half of 2005 riding around in my buddy’s rundown 92 Chevy listening to TM101 over and over and have spent hours revisiting it since. The Massacre fell off and took 50 with it. Urban Legend continued T.I.’s shoot-for-the-singles style in the best way, and Who Is Mike Jones? – a very underrated album – rose to #40 on the charts on the back of “Still Tippin’.” But both pale by comparison. It’s insane: post-Cash Money Mannie Fresh, early solo Bun B, T.I. and Lil’ Scrappy on a Jazzy Pha beat, still shining from Black Album Jay Z, Akon’s first major feature. Then Jeezy’s solo efforts like “My Hood,” “Bottom of the Map,” “Air Forces,” “Trap Star,” “Let’s Get It/Sky’s The Limit” — every song needs its own space. Listening to Let’s Get It: Thug Motiviation 101 isn’t nostalgic. There’s a timeless quality to the project, one that keeps its influence from fading and each play as absorbed as the last.
When it comes to the recent string of synth-heavy solo acts, bands, and reissues, my opinions can go either way. Sometimes a record comes along that blows me away with creativity, originality, or an ability to breathe new life in an otherwise desiccate form. Other times, I’ll listen, shrug, and move on to the next thing. Austin quartet S U R V I V E originally released their self-titled debut on Berlin’s Mannequin Records, but Holodeck Records (co-run by the band’s Adam Jones, who also moonlights in Troller) and Light Lodge Records have done the lord’s work and re-released the record for domestic audiences. In many ways, this release is a “homecoming,” as the label puts it, because, in addition to Jones, most of the S U R V I V E crew are part of the Holodeck family. The nine dank synth workouts on this LP are a natural fit for the label, as Holodeck has spent the past couple of years curating a roster of like-minded and eclectic sounds from Austin and beyond.
The reissue comes at an appropriate time, as the band had music from this release included in Adam Wingard’s film The Guest, and S U R V I V E’s brand of sci-fi synth tunes have become de rigueur in the indie music world. Labels are pressing new versions of old sci-fi and horror soundtracks (yawn!), whose necessity of being unearthed continues to spark debate, while bands out of L.A., New York, and bedroom studios in Anytown, USA are exploring synth-based, sci-fi-leaning works. It’s fitting that S U R V I V E have come back to show the kids how it’s done, as none of the jams have lost any of their potency. From the ambient leaning “Deserted Skies” and “Shunting Yard,” to the hard-hitting, beat driven “Hourglass” and “Floating Cube,” S U R V I V E brings it. The analog synth heads will be frothing over these tunes.
As a single track comprising of musique concrète, field recordings, and Norwegian folk music, When’s The Black Death is every bit as desolate and foreboding as the visual imagery that inspired it. It’s a twisted and harrowing work that uses the sound of rats, horses, and screaming infants to embellish the dismal history it sets out to document. But in spite of Lars Pedersen’s experimental approach to collage and composition, Lasse Marhaug writes that the album was also a staple recording among those involved with the Oslo church burnings during the year of its release. Varg Vikernes and company were reportedly inspired by Pedersen’s recordings at this early stage in the bizarre evolution of When’s musical trajectory.
23 years after its initial release by Tatra Productions, a reissue of The Black Death was announced on Ideologic Organ, Stephen O’Malley’s Editions Mego imprint. Cut by Rashad Becker at Dubplates and Mastering, When’s third album is being granted a second wind in the context of the aftermath it left behind. Not only did the album bring about a visionary approach to the arrangement of field recordings and aural tapestry, but it also informed the stifling atmosphere on albums such as A Blaze In The Northern Sky and Hvis Lyset Tar Oss. After looking at the Theodor Kittelsen drawings that inspired The Black Death, it’s not hard to see where those atmospheric tensions were birthed; although the mood is often a peculiar cocktail of despair and emptiness, there is a curious intricacy within each scene that summons the audience towards its gruesome subject.
Instead of focusing on the desolation and horror of the plague as it devastated Norway in the 14th century, Kittelsen created images that explored its impact by also honing in on a particular individual or landscape. This allowed him to illustrated the physical emptiness that surrounded those unfortunate souls. And although these images have also been used by black metal bands in the past (“Fattigmannen” found its way onto the cover of Hvis Lyset Tar Oss), it’s the dejection that Pederson mirrors in his approach that brings each horrifying scene to life. In this respect, the detail within the album’s assembly brings a rich, immersive sense of vulnerability to the listener on playback; it grabs your attention in a similar way that the pictures do.
That vulnerability is intensified through the use of fragments that might otherwise be dissociated or alien to the scene. Pederson uses coiled springs, piercing organs, and laughter to add a supernatural, almost comic feel to his work. This inclusion makes you feel on edge because of how unexpected it is against snippets of people wheezing and the sound of a sick man gargling uncontrollably. It also brings a sense of reality to the project; one typically associates the sound of laughter and toys with children and innocence, but when this is juxtaposed with the gloomy clutter of people dying and funeral dirge, it conjures the most uncomfortable emotive response.
Pedersen balances that discomfort with the anguish in Kittelsen’s pictures. He includes segments of a scythe being sharpened, a murder of crows, and recordings of an open landscape. These sections emphasize the plight of a humble population along with the spaces that they occupied. Even though this has the most gripping effect when quieted violins are thrust against an indistinguishable throttle of static and noise, that balance is retained throughout.
The discernible sounds that Pederson uses are often blunt and muffled — where rumbling cello strings permeate into a percussive build up, for instance — and that complements the altogether raw and experimental nature of the work. The Black Death tells a story, and it does so in a way that is fascinating to observe but painful to endure, shining a light on the complexities of sound collage while simultaneously beckoning its audience to reflect upon a horrible slab of history. The album is by no means a pleasurable listen — even the brief moments of a babbling brook or bird song only lead to a decidedly darker terrain — but it is a benchmark in the arrangement of field recordings and a splendid addition to the Ideologic Organ catalog.
Want to feel like you’ve wasted your life? Start by reading Vivien Goldman’s Press Color liner-notes bio of Lizzy Mercier Descloux. At 22 years of age, Descloux moved to New York during those chaotic years of the late 70s when the death throes of punk’s first wave were giving birth to its deformed children. Before the decade was over, she had roomed with Patti Smith, had a star-crossed affair with Richard Hell, and pumped out several releases on her long-time partner Michel Esteban’s too-cool-for-school label ZE Records. Descloux cut a bright and dashing figure in a scene that, even at this early stage of development, was already settling into a kind of monochromatic conformity.
By the time Descloux put out her solo debut single “Fire”/”Mission Impossible,” ZE was well on its way to solidifying its identity around its patented mutant discoTM sound, thanks to artists like Cristina, Don Armando’s Second Avenue Rhumba Band, and Sympho-State — acts that blurred the lines between earnest homage and outright parody. Descloux’s comparatively Spartan and angular sound put her closer to lablemate James Chance, but where Chance’s music embodied menace and a dystopian vacuity, Descloux’s was animated by a sense of playful absurdity: nonsense lyrics, left-field covers (not one, but two reworkings of compositions from Lalo Schifrin’s Mission Impossible soundtrack, and buoyant dancefloor-ready beats.
Her take on Arthur Brown’s 1968 hit is perhaps the most electrifying song on the album. Descloux pares away the original’s screeching Hammond and lets that throbbing bass line and whoever’s pounding away at the cowbell take center stage. Having reduced the song to its bare rhythmic elements, she then builds it back up, tossing in some gospel-choir backing vocals, subtle synthesized beats, and a sax solo for good measure. And of course, there’s Lizzy herself, standing in for the God of Hellfire, sing-talking her way through a stripped-down version of the lyrics with childlike exuberance.
In keeping with the prevailing philosophy of the time, neither Descloux nor her chief collaborator (and sometime lover) D.J. Barnes were trained musicians, a fact that Descloux implicitly acknowledges on the reggae-inflected “Golden Throat.” But where the unschooled nature of contemporaries like Mars and Teenage Jesus And The Jerks gave voice to an inchoate ugliness and nihilism, Descloux’s reveals a pure joy in the act of discovery. There is an innocence to songs like her rendition of “Jim on the Move” that’s infectious, and it shines through on even the least developed offerings on the album.
The new Light in the Attic edition of the album maintains ZE’s 2003 tracklisting, including the original eight-song LP, Descloux’s first EP with Barnes as the duo Rosa Yemen, and a handful of non-album miscellany. The Rosa Yemen EP provides a handy missing link between the harsher sounds of the no-wave underground and the punk-funk of her solo debut. The songs are mostly lacking in percussion and turn around an uneasy interplay between her and her partner’s guitars. Songs like “Rosa Vertov” and “Herpes Simplex” also supply some of Descloux’s most frantic and anxiety-ridden vocal deliveries. Of the remaining tracks, “Morning High” is the best, a swirling drone creating a canvas for a bilingual duet between Descloux and Patti Smith, each reciting a poem by their mutual love, Rimbaud (although, having been recorded in 1995 as part of an album-length project by Bill Laswell, it also feels the most temporally dislocated on this compilation).
Reading over Goldman’s profile and seeing Descloux through the eyes of the many men (especially Hell) who “crashed on those rocks,” it’s easy to view her as the ultimate manic pixie dream girl brought to life: this boisterous, exotic, fashion-forward French girl who flitted from man-to-man and from medium-to-medium the way a bee hops among the flowers. Yet I think it’s more fitting to think of her as a punk rock Sarah Conner, taking up with anyone who had something to teach her, anyone who could expand her headspace and help her develop as an artist. Sarah had her impending war and her messianic scion. Lizzy had a black-and-white world in desperate need of some color.
“Texas Serenade” begins the way every mystery should: with a corpse — in this case, the body of a man lying murdered on his own front lawn. The mystery is not so much the identity of the killer as that of the victim, and it’s a problem that the song attempts to solve one facet at a time. The scene is narrated by someone with an unknown relationship to the deceased who provides us with a portrait of the man, or perhaps more accurately a chalk outline, a shape that circumscribes the dead man’s limits while rendering little of the terrain therein.
The details that the narrator feeds us are scattered and disconnected, ranging from the confounding to the trivial. We know that he was a decorated war veteran. We know that his parents live in Houston, but he moved “out West.” But most of all, we know from the reaction of his neighbors that the deceased is someone that the community knew or at least thought that they did. This sudden, violent death in the middle of a quiet neighborhood is like a fissure in the daylight world, an opening into something dark, savage, and alien roiling beneath the surface of things.
The song’s most resonant pair of lines appear in the penultimate verse. “He was the violent kind,” we are told, and this we could have guessed, but then he adds, “He saved me once or twice.” Suddenly we have a whole new view of our victim and the man weaving his fractured eulogy. However, they knew one another; whether through the war, some illicit venture, or another context entirely, our narrator feels a responsibility to his friend’s legacy. In his own way, the speaker tries to tell us that the truth of a man is not just found in his worst actions, that there are dimensions to the human heart that can’t be captured by an obituary or crime scene photo.
But what does that matter? Because at the end of the day, the guy is dead on the lawn, and in time, everyone will know the reasons why. The things he did under the cover of darkness will be dragged out, hissing and mewling, into the light. And what will they say about him, then? Please don’t ask me.
I hate criticism most when it comes to pop music. It feels like opportunism. I know this is hypocritical, but what if I’m not a critic? What if I’m just another opinionated pop culture obsessive who’s been grandfathered in on a site that sometimes approaches its subjects in an objective, exhaustive, erudite fashion? All I can do is flex what writerly gifts I might innately possess and solipsistically enthuse. But pop music is simply about making people feel good, right? It always has and always will be. That’s why it makes so much money, why it’s called what it is. But it seems only uplifting in private. In public, it’s mostly accompanied by crying babies, obnoxious conversations, vomiting, depressing clearance racks, echosome, smelly bathrooms… Any number of drab settings turn those bright, exultant crescendos into a sick joke. “Weird Al” nodding to himself in the kitchen in Ghost World is sad too, but I get that. The more that life narrows your eyes, the more you just wanna “Shake It Off” and move into the music with abandon.
For a month or so, off and on, “Mad About You” has been on my mind. My reinvigorated love of this song is what finally made me pull the trigger and let 1989 rip. I would’ve loved 1989 in 1986, when I was seven and into Madonna and NKOTB. I like it now, because I still like that feckless, dreamy kid, ineffectual though he was. It was a few years before I turned on Marky Mark and his Funky Bunch in favor of the hard, macho pop variation of hair metal. That kid sang to himself and dreamed big dreams of living the loveswell (part budding sexuality, part achy longing for shared happiness) exemplified in “Mad About You.” I wanted, like so many others, to be the “You” in Belinda’s song. I swooned at the video. A pretty girl in love, only making her prettier.
The formula still resonates, even if it’s not appropriate for most of the people who read and write on this site. I am an adult, ostensibly, but when I listen in earnest to this music, I can forget that. Because being an adult is garbage. It’s utterly dreadful. We’re supposed to continue the population of the earth and put away childish things. That’s OK, though. Because there’s purpose in there. A job. Collegiate existential malaise only leads to more of the same. Function is fine, even if it is “soul crushing.” How many times have I used “soul” and don’t even believe in it? Mayhap attending church is just pop music to better keep breeders in line…
Specious musings aside, there is something magic to the innocence of the former Go-Go’s first single. Its plonky percussion, guitar peals that’re so tame and canned-sounding that it’s like Ted Nugent in a tin can in the middle of the ocean (not a bad idea), and lyrics so insipid and repetitive as to render themselves nearly meaningless. Yet it’s magic, because it makes the overwhelming feelings of love seem digestible, something you can get by on. It’s an illusion, like all magic, and it’s bad for us. It’s candy, which we are also supposed to grow out of (or at least graduate to more refined, expensive deserts). Then again, it’s not a total illusion. The guy playing her mad love interest in the video remains Carlisle’s husband (and they have a child) to this day. Any dispiriting cold-light-of-day juxtapositions with their pop romance must’ve been shaken off.
Perhaps self-indulgence is so pervasive that we should look at it as a function of living, not a dysfunction. Plus, if we were gonna give in, why not give in to something that feels good rather than judgmental cynicism? I see so many more people coming together over cynicism and derision rather than passion. Passion is ungainly, immature, gauche. That attitude (and I have it too sometimes) seems more dysfunctional than giving in to Taylor Swift or anything like it. I don’t wanna take these bonbons apart. I’ll get shit all over my fingers and will have wasted an opportunity to pop and enjoy, tummy ache be damned.
January 17, 2015: Sia - “Chandelier” (Live on SNL)
I began watching Saturday Night Live (SNL) musical guest performances when Drake did his LAWLZ a bit back, and then I retell the story about physically body-checking his ass in front of the Intercontinental Hotel some May Sunday running for a reservation on 48th, with my mom to the left clearing a path through the Canadian rapper’s two bodyguards, stoutly. Eh, I continue to continue. Continuing: a few weekends back, I caught an episode featuring mini-Pincher Kevin Hart, Adelaide, and Australian-born vocalist (all facts about) Sia (in this sentence are Wiki approved); Kevin Hart was employed as a host to introduce Sia and a mime for her performance of the March 2014 (you have a) radio (??) hit, “Chandelier.”
What first compelled me to Sia’s guest musical performance on SNL was how she always covered her eyes and nose with a veil. Maybe it was because Lana Del Ray previouslybecame the IRL emoji of O_O as a musical act, but this veil made for an appropriate effect for Sia’s singing, vaguely focusing on her mouth and performance (which is very infrequently enhanced on SNL). Actually, BOTH acts of hers suffered from visual performances; her physical stature was accentuated by dreadfully awkward performers; OMG — Kevin Hart’s sweaters in this is a chocolate drop; it’s winter. I enjoy mystique in performance, and when it comes down to it, I’m NOT interested in watching performance, but Sia performing “Chandelier” at an AA event would be ULTIMATE, amirite? Okay, and even though I’ve heard this song thousands of times since its March 2014 release, I’m finally recognizing it on VERY public television a year later. Materialism got me (vis-à-vis a veil) to watch Sia perform on SNL.
Typically something like this would be considered “old news,” and yes, it is old news. Fuck, the Super Bowl just happened for the 40th ti— wait, what’s XLIX? On the topic of materialism and (generally) making money, I was asking this dude at a bar about how much of football is based on getting a certain amount of PR to popularize and earn some fucking capital. He was like, “All of it.” As for Sia, how much do you think she’s paid for PR since she began her career in 2001? Like, PR got me to notice her vocal gift of expertly imitating a smattering of excellent female vocalists who came recently and anciently before her. But the most compelling part of Sia’s “Chandelier” performance — initially the veil followed by uncomfortable miming — is how impeccable her voice naturally exists compared to how experimentally she could use it on a platform like SNL (ULTRA-PUBLIC-TELEVISION) but would 100% never be allowed to. Like, if Joanna Newsom were to try out for American Idol or getting no votes on The Voice — like, BUMMER. It’s crushing to think how nice it’d be to see genuine talent match artistic implementation/measure. I’m willing to bet Sia could do some weird shit.
Actually, watching this SNL “Chandelier” Sia performance for the XLIXth time, I don’t believe Sia is singing. This veil is just an elaborately charming rouse to shadow her lips for fuck ups; they zoom in on the cellist during the first high note of the chorus in “Chandelier” and then birds-eye the view immediately upon the second time she high-notes the chorus. But who knows — maybe all the musicians on stage are pretending to play really well alongside her, providing audio-engineered-quality music LIVE. After the show, they’re all like “Burgers?” And at the pub, that mime is like “I can’t booze” and flashes his two-year badge, so then Sia hugs him, people photograph the gesture like MAD, it’s on Humans of New York’s Facebook page, my fiancée shows it to me, and I’m like OUROBOROS? (Yes, I spelled ouroboros correct on my first try, woop!)
So, to make a focused point out of this entire what-have-you: Do I believe Sia’s musical performance of “Chandelier” live on SNL? Lemme get a glass of water; WTF, YouTube commercials. No, I don’t believe her performance, because I don’t like going out and doing what she’s singing about, nor do I want to publicly pay for that amount of booze at a bar. And also because this song is about her — she’s trying to connect with people, just not all people (myself, the beholder of this song within my mind/body/ears) on a personal level. Either way, how GEEKED do you think mime’s reaction looked when he landed this SNL gig? Wait, is he even in the “Chandelier” video? Nope!
For a hot minute in my mid-20s, I taught 6th grade at a private elementary school in the Chicago suburbs. While I found the work incredibly fulfilling, it didn’t change the fact that four separate preps (five, counting a double-period for English) made 60+ hours a week my new normal. I was working constantly but never felt like I was getting ahead, never felt like I was able to give my students the classroom experience they deserved. At the time, I was living with my sister, her husband, and their five kids. She had offered to put me up through grad school, but three years later, she was expecting her sixth child and I was still living in their spare bedroom. On top of all of this, I had been seeing the woman who’d eventually become my wife for some time, and my living arrangement was starting to wear thin on everyone concerned. But with my generous salary of $26 grand a year, I wasn’t sure how to change it. My life felt like a noose tightening around my neck: there was no one in my life who I did not feel like I was letting down, and the five-to-six hours of sleep I was getting each night only served to magnifying every difficulty I encountered into an insurmountable obstacle.
Through all of this, Rilo Kiley’s “A Better Son/Daughter” emerged as a personal ward against constantly encroaching despair. I do not suffer from clinical depression, but there were days when I felt like I could see it from where I was standing. That moment when the alarm went off at a quarter to seven was the worst, when the lids would peel back from my eyes like the skin from a fresh wound, and all the anxiety from the waking world would come flooding back on me. When Jenny Lewis said, in her gentle sing-song voice, “Sometimes in the morning I am petrified and can’t move,” it was a position I recognized all too well.
I would play the song incessantly as I went through my morning ritual — buttoning up my shirt, fixing my tie, gathering all the books and binders and lesson materials I’d need for the day. I would play it when I was alone in my car, the volume cranked up to the max while I shouted along with the words (that first line when all the instruments kick in — “And sometimes when you’re on, you’re really fucking on” — contains one of the best-placed and most cathartic “fucks” in the entire history of songwriting in the English language). The shift from first person in the song’s opening lines to second person created a sense of universality, like Lewis was singing not just about herself, but about me and by extension everyone like us. On days when I didn’t know how to prepare a face to meet the faces that I’d meet, I’d steel myself with her assertion that “You’ll fight and you’ll make it through/ You’ll fake it if you have to/ And you’ll show up for work with a smile.” I would run through her litany of all the things that I could be, and then I’d surrender myself to Blake Sennet’s arena rock mini-solo.
“A Better Son/Daughter” is a unique entry in Rilo Kiley’s discography (nothing else from the band ever hit me quite the same way). It’s not just some crowd-pleaser to be trotted out for an encore. It’s a desperate yawp of defiance torn from the most broken part of you and thrown back into the face of everything in your life that makes you feel small and stupid and inadequate. It’s a celebration of the herculean effort that is sometimes required just to walk out your front door and face the day, a reminder that, even when you feel the odds are hopelessly against you, there’s a dignity to be found in going down swinging.
In her brilliant and incisive review of Her, fellow TMTer/drinking buddy Lorian Long takes Spike Jonze to task for dressing up a technocratic nightmare as some kind of futuristic Annie Hall. While most critics and viewers (myself included) were taken in by the peculiar dilemma facing Joaquin Phoenix’s Theodore Twombly and his OS paramour voiced by Scarlett Johansson, Lorian saw beneath its surface “corridors of menacing and horrifying truths about our capitalistic ennui.” While we were busy rooting for Twombly and Samantha to make their relationship work, we were ignoring the unsettling implications that make such a relationship possible: total corporate control, total loss of privacy, and perhaps most frightening, the total complacency of everyone in the film in the face of these things. Where Jonze saw a love story, Lorian saw dystopia.
“The Temptation of Adam,” from singer-songwriter Josh Ritter’s fifth album The Historical Conquests of Josh Ritter, is a work that trades equally in the romantic and the dystopian. The most delicate cut off an otherwise raucous release, “Temptation” follows a soldier manning a secret nuclear missile silo who falls in love with his only companion, a maintenance staffer named Marie. The temporal setting of the song is ambiguous. There’s a quaintness to the language and imagery suggestive of the Cold War 1950s, but we could just as easily be glimpsing some near or far-flung future where America has once again helped drag the world to the the brink of nuclear annihilation.
The story starts, as is fitting for a romance, with the two lovers at odds with one another. Our narrator makes a boorish pass on their first meeting, which rankles Marie, who might be a bit of a cold fish. The turning point comes when Marie, working out a crossword, asks, “What five letters spell apocalypse?” and her companion shoots back “W-W-I-I-I.” There’s a romcom cadence to their banter, but underneath is something infinitely dark — a wry, grim acceptance of the threat of apocalyptic conflict that has become inseparable from our protagonists’ lives.
From there, time begins to distort. We don’t know how long our lovers spend locked in their isolated, connubial bliss, but we do know that it’s all drawing to an end. Marie is going away, either discharged or reassigned, and the narrator knows that when that happens, the spell they’ve woven in that dimly lit subterranean bunker will be broken. In the song’s final verse, wherein the narrator fantasizes about the life he and Marie could have if only she could stay, Ritter hauls out some of his most haunting and poetic lines:
Oh we could hold each other close and stay up every night
Looking up into the dark like it’s the night sky
And pretend this giant missile was an old oak tree instead
And carve our name in hearts into the warhead.
That passage conjures up a powerful storm of feelings. There’s a seductive quality to that image; we can feel ourselves drawn into the lovers’ subjective space and through their eyes experience beauty in their cold, utilitarian surroundings. Yet, taking a step back from the scene, we can perceive a sadness here, and we mourn the courtship this young couple should have had on the surface. And slithering through this garden of beauty and melancholy is a serpent with a grin like death, a cruel absurdity to this affair that no amount of poetry can fully disguise or erase.
And in case you find your sympathies hopelessly entwined with Ritter’s protagonists, then consider this: In the song’s concluding lines, the narrator contemplates his present happiness, his lover’s impending departure, and the impossibility of their love affair; he considers whether they would be better off if the world went Defcon 1. “If you hold me here forever, like you’re holding me tonight,” he muses, “I think about that great big button and I’m tempted.” If we can bring ourselves to see through the doe-eyed romanticism of the moment, we will come face to face with something truly chilling: a love so all-consuming and monomaniacal that billions of lives and all of human civilization seem a small price to pay for its continuance.
With Her, Spike Jonze gave us a dystopian hellscape disguised as a tender tale of boy-meets-girl. With “The Temptation of Adam,” Josh Ritter shows us that the two need not be mutually exclusive.