2010: Phantom Payn Days - Phantom Payn Daze
Obscure musical finds can be confusing, flashing their provenance, refusing to submit to easy categorization. Phantom Payn Daze is no exception. There’s certainly a hint of mystery about it, with sounds reminiscent of a latter day krautrock album that was actually recorded throughout the 90s. Its release was delayed by a decade, and it seems to have gestated very slowly over the years, like a long running Jenga tower constructed over many days (daze?) in a student flat. Just like this teetering monument to idleness, you can hear in it the sound of hands returning to work then abandoning the project over and over again throughout slow, painful, wasted eras. De Stijl records finally released Phantom Payn Daze last year, and happily it answers to their definition of the ideal indie antique: a fine example of ‘basement arcana’ as they call it.
Although ex-39 Clocks member Juergen Gleue was a typical obscurantist art rocker in his day, there is more to Phantom Payn Daze than its rarity, there is what happens in the silence of its obscurity, the tangible outcome of steering a course away from the mainstream. De Stijl released a promo video for “Paradox Box”, which appropriately sums up the value of lost musical artifacts in terms of their mysteriously acquired patina. The process of making Phantom Payn Daze seems almost built into the fabric of the album itself: the lyrics suggest days of weak sunshine and jam sessions that coalesce into complex songs built on simple riffs, over time becoming lo-fi enigmas – “Afternoon Non Happenings.” On “Paradox Box”, Juergen Gleue starts out by saying that “there’s nothing extraordinary about this ancient box” but the ancient box turns out to have mysterious powers. Strange tales often begin with the discovery of seemingly ordinary objects, but even so, Gleue’s delivery is so dry and diffidently cool that by taking the ancient magical box for granted you feel like warning him, as with the idiot in the horror film, not to take this box for granted. It’s an ancient box for fxsake, of course it’s extraordinary!
But just because something is ancient is it necessarily a special find? Archaeologists spend most of their time painfully unearthing junk that just happens to be 2000 years old. Likewise, the discovery of “lost” albums is often celebrated for its own sake. However, what Juergen Gleue deems special about his “Paradox Box” is not that it is ancient, but that it “weaves a pattern once it gets unlocked.” And this, as it happens, is what makes Phantom Payn Daze an interesting find. Simple themes are interwoven throughout the album – mostly played on keyboards without percussion. These mantras lyrically emphasize romantic stoner apathy (“sitting in a waiting room ‘til the world ends”) and musically show how simple themes can breed complexity if you overlay them. The structure in “Paradox Box” is regular and even monotonous, but the layers of baritone blues guitar, watery bongos and atmospheric keyboard effects are so effective at weaving an aftermath in memory that the jam spins itself into infinity. We get a sense that by meandering through the creative process over a series of unremarkable days, you might stumble upon a hypnotic theme and get stuck in the elaboration of it.
To hammer home the comparison once and for all, “Paradox Box” is like a little microcosm of the Phantom Payn Daze album itself. I can go even further and point out some fun associations between Phantom Payn Days’ precursor 39 Clocks and the Deist idea of watches abandoned by watchmakers: machines that appear to have been lying around for a long time, that show evidence of intricate design, but are otherwise nothing but abandoned, mechanical objects. The 39 Clocks were rumored to have behaved unpredictably at shows, mocking the shifty self conscious attitudes of their contemporaries on songs like the Payn Days’ “Art is Dead”, so it is hard to know how seriously Juergen Gleue took this whole art-rock thing anyway.
Whatever was intended, this album is like the missing link between the Velvet Underground, Suicide, and our own lo-fi keyboard aficionados of today. It’s almost as if we’re witnessing a slower, alternative modification of musical history, where the original painstaking way of making ‘lossless’ experimental rock music without guitars has evolved into a new approach to percussion and harmony by default – bypassing cheesiness and funkiness and danceability and all these venalities of mood. Because many musicians have now ‘updated’ their sound by hauling up a keyboard from the basement, Phantom Payn Days’ choice of instrumentation isn’t remarkable anymore, but what stands out is the intricate way in which the resonance of harmonies propel repetitive riffs into convoluted, clockwork resolutions. This is not just a way of creating a reverb’d, electric guitar effect without the benefit of strings, though it may have started out that way. “Resonance 21” in particular illustrates that these experiments with harmony are fresh: it sounds like psych film music, with mariachis clicking atmospherically like insects on a summer night behind a wall of keyboard chords submerged in shifting harmony.
Phantom Payn Days may be absent (or absent-minded) creators – like the German art-rock version of Dawkins’ blind watchmaker (the watchmaker who wears his sunglasses after dark), but Phantom Payn Daze seems to bear the mark of all those long days creating, detouring, jamming, and recording. In other words it isn’t just an antique curiosity; it is marked by the actual processes that went into it. Since the band finished making the album, Juergen Gleue has abandoned music altogether for comic books. But regardless of what its creators are turning their hands to these days, the album still ticks away according to its own bizarre internal logic. It depends on your point of view whether that functioning holds any interest for you. Curiosity does play a part, but you may find yourself uninterested in the absent creators, or obsessed with the mystery of how this artifact came to be. Either way, it’s a well constructed thing you’re going to find, and you better watch out in case you find yourself humming some distinctly radio unfriendly tunes for days (daze).
1976, 2011: Levon Helm and Emmylou Harris - “Evangeline”
On Monday night at Central Park’s SummerStage, Emmylou Harris joined the Levon Helm Band for a rendition of “Evangeline,” a song written by the Band’s Robbie Robertson and immortalized in the concert film The Last Waltz. Harris later used “Evangeline” as the title track for an album composed mostly of leftover material from past recording sessions, however the version she recorded with the Band in 1977 for their triple album and movie is the ostensible original.
The Last Waltz scene captures a performance of the song featuring Helm on mandolin, Harris on guitar, and Rick Danko on violin, all splitting lead vocals and joining in harmony for the chorus. Harris is a vision of grace and beauty, dressed in a powder blue gown with long locks extending down her back. The Band posses the stately manner of seasoned musicians, uncaring or unsentimental to their last concerts’ significance.
As the scene ends, the camera angle switches to a bird’s eye view from the back of the stage. It is reasonable to posit that Martin Scorsese, the director of the film, intended this final cut to be clever trick. Given Harris and The Band’s energy, you’d never suspect that the recorded performance was merely a sound check.
Nearly thirty-five years later, Harris and Helm once again shared the stage. This time the band was the Levon Helm Band. This time Harris, aged but no less a beauty, wore a black dress with white hair shaped near her shoulders. Helm, a throat cancer survivor, sat hunched on a chair playing mandolin, inaudibly mouthing the words he once sang. But with the same intensity they shared so many years before, Harris and Helm played to an audience who remembered them as they were and appreciated them as they are now. There is no greater fate for a song.
1998: Reatards - Teenage Hate + 2 Cassette Releases
Like the delta city in Egypt after which it’s named, Memphis, Tennessee is well-known for the fertility of its soil. Since the 1940s, however, that soil is better known for nourishing musicians than crops. As the birthplace of the blues and later the home of Sun Records and Elvis Presley, Memphis is a place where the spirit of rock ‘n’ roll runs deep. Its unique history plays a tremendous role in shaping the artists who cut their teeth there, to the point where even punks – the sort of riff-raff who generally pride themselves on wanting to take a baseball bat to tradition’s upturned nose – seem powerless to escape the city’s magnetic legacy. The recently departed Jay Reatard was no exception: the son of a rootless tribe, he nonetheless drank deep of the wellsprings of his hometown.
For many indie rock devotees, Reatard (born Jimmy Lee Lindsey Jr.), seemed to emerge ex nihilo onto the musical landscape of the late aughts, announcing his bratty presence with a spate of singles on Matador and In the Red. Nothing, of course, could have been further from the truth. At 25, Lindsey had put in enough time to launch half a dozen solo careers. A glance at the discography on his Wikipedia page reveals an artist with the kind of restless creativity and work ethic that would put even the most prolific musician to shame, including stints with gothic synth punks Lost Sounds, a side project with Goner Records founder and former Oblivian Eric Friedl called Bad Times, and a smattering of idiosyncratic projects like Destruction Unit and Terror Visions, just to name a handful.
In an effort to keep Lindsey’s work alive, Goner is embarking on a series of reissues, beginning, appropriately enough, at the beginning: with the artist’s earliest recorded work with Reatards. Teenage Hate collects the band’s 1998 debut LP, as well as a pair of rare cassette releases, The Reatards and Fuck Elvis Here’s The Reatards. Fans of Blood Visions or Watch Me Fall will get to see a slightly different (though still recognizable) side the Jay Reatard that they’ve come to know and love amid the just-shy-of-40 tracks shoehorned into this reissue, but even more importantly, it provides a crucial link in the chain running between the artist’s final works and his humble origins.
Inextricably linked with the birth of The Reatards are fellow Memphis punks, The Oblivians. Credited as being the chief inspiration behind Lindsey’s sojourn into rock ‘n’ roll, the band was a sizeable force in their local indie scene. The group synthesized the varying evolutionary strands of popular music that metastasized out of their hometown and ran them through a punk rock Cuisinart, building an aesthetic out of shit-fi garage rock that dipped into doo-wop, gospel, and the blues, all delivered with a cretinous snarl. The instrument-swapping trio gained notoriety for their unusual twin guitar, no bass line-up, which rendered their ramshackle tunes all the more cacophonous.
It’s hard to imagine Reatards coming about without The Oblivians. Lindsey was reportedly so enamored with the band that he sent Eric Friedl a home-recorded demo tape, which quickly led to a record deal with Goner Records. The Reatards’ eponymous cassette release was recorded, in part, by Jack Oblivian, and one of the band’s earliest incarnations consisted solely of Jay on guitar and vocals and Greg Cartwright (performing under the pseudonym “Manwich”) on drums. The Oblivians’ stranglehold on Lindsey’s imagination is readily apparent in his early recordings. The Reatards’ gritty garage punk could be the radiation-exposed half-brother to Popular Favorites, sprouting Chuck Berry guitar riffs and 50s rock solos like mutated limbs.
But even if Lindsey was taking cues from his elders, the stamp he put on the music was purely his own. Even at 18, he was a gifted songwriter whose best tunes could barely disguise their solid-as-a-rock (Ford tough?) melodies beneath the trash heaps of guitar fuzz and tape hiss. Early album stand-out “Stacye” manages to smuggle a rubbery rockabilly guitar lick into the verse of a blazing punk panegyric to Lindsey’s at-the-time girlfriend. The metronomic snare beat of “Old News Baby” provides the ideal backdrop to Lindsey’s unhinged tirade against his unfaithful ex. The compilation’s best moment comes with “Out of My Head into My Bed,” drawing added force from the delicious contrast between the crisp three-chord melody (one of the finest of the man’s career) and Lindsey’s rabid animal howls.
The perspective that Lindsey brought to the songs was totally his own as well. The same caustic, anti-social bile he spewed on his solo records can be found congealing at the base of the mic stand on nearly every track. For each love song (or lust song) with even a hint of promise, there are five or ten bitter break-up anthems and ditties that depict sexual commerce in the most misanthropic light imaginable. “If you’re looking for a man to treat you right/ Hold you close all through the night/ It ain’t me,” he rages on “It Ain’t Me,” and proclaims with unsettling candor on “Out of My Head…,” ”You’ll believe in what I feed you/ Feed you lies almost every day/ But you’re just too dumb to see/ That one-two, one-two/ Baby I got you.” Not particularly deep or life-affirming, but what do you expect from an album titled Teenage Hate?
This new reissue is valuable document, giving an ideal vantage point from which to examine the formative years of the last decade’s most prolific punk songwriter and to understand his relation to the musical milieu – both contemporary and historical – that shaped him. For all its furious frothing at the mouth, Teenage Hate is a snapshot of a young artist deeply immersed in his craft, for whom the mottled tradition of his home city provided a launching point for vibrant career cut short long before its time.
1995-1998: Local H: The Island Years
Head over to Localh.com and you might still be able to find an image of the cover art to Local H: The Island Years, the latest entry in Universal’s Icon series, accompanied by the following caption: “On April 5th, 2011, Local H will join the likes of Johnny Cash, James Brown, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Kiss, Hoobastank, and a select group of legendary acts that have been touted by Universal Music as representative of a genre and a generation.” Newcomers or casual fans could easily gloss over the irony and self-deprecation of this statement, but long-time listeners will likely crack a smile, knowing that front-man Scott Lucas is no stranger to either.
Ironic that a one-hit wonder whose most notable contribution to the world of rock was a single that topped out at #5 on Billboard’s alternative chart in 1996 should be inducted into such an elite (Hoobastank not withstanding) pantheon. Ironic that the duo should be honored as representatives of their generation by the very label that abandoned them during what should have been the biggest phase of their career. The late ‘90s was the place where promising careers as rock ‘n’ roll professionals went to die as the bottom fell out of alternative rock and the post-post-grunge scene failed to produce another Kurt Cobain. Many young artists were likely taken by surprise to find the market shrinking for their brand of Gen X angst, but in the case of Local H, the fall from major label grace seemed not only inevitable, but curiously fitting.
If there’s one thing that has marked this band from the very beginning, it’s a sense of… if not fatalism, then at least resignation. Formed around 1988 while singer/guitar player Scott Lucas and drummer Joe Daniels were finishing high school, the duo broke out of Zion, a small town in the wastes of northeast Illinois, with their 1995 Island debut, Ham Fisted. Lucas and Daniels’ place of origin was crucial in shaping Local H’s sensibilities. If Springsteen helped to chronicle the quiet dignity and pathos of small town Americans facing their daily hardships, Lucas chronicled their meanness and absurdity, from the “crass fat ass” of “High-Fiving M.F.,” to the self-loathing cynic of the song of the same name, to all of the sundry unmotivated slackers and wastoids that populate his universe. Like Johnny Thunders, Lucas’ characters were born to lose, and in their most lucid (and oftentimes drunkest) moments they aren’t afraid to admit it to themselves and to anyone else who happens to be listening.
Their big moment came in 1996 when their sophomore album As Good as Dead gave birth to the break-out single “Bound for the Floor.” Everyone who grew up in the ‘90s learned the meaning of the word “copacetic” from this song:
It’s actually hard to imagine a better distillation of the band’s aesthetic and philosophy. ”Born to be down,” Lucas groans in the song’s opening verse. ”I learned all my lessons before now/ Born to be down/ I think you’ll get used to it.” Looking backwards from the twenty-teens, the “why bother?” aura of apathy that pervades the song seems quintessentially ‘90s, but it speaks to a real sense of futility and entrapment that winds and wends its way through nearly every song on the album, and that’s ultimately what pushes Local H out of and, indeed, above the coffee shop ennui that their peers were passing off as rock ‘n’ roll rebellion at the time.
Lucas never bothered much with metaphor. His was the gift of sledge-hammer honesty, the ability to speak the truth so succinctly and directly as to make his meaning seem self-evident. This holds whether he is acting the part of the spurned lover in the break-up ballad “Eddie Vedder” (”Okay, I understand/ but I don’t wanna be your friend/ I don’t need another friend/ I’ve got too many friends”), the frustrated youth of “Nothing Special” (And I know I’m nothing special/ I know I’m nothing great/ I know I’m nothing different/ But I just don’t feel the same”, or as the inner voice of an aging punk whose best years are behind him, as on the blistering “Back in the Day” (”Hey, old school/ Yeah, you were cool/ But that was back in the day”).
Then, of course, there was the album’s crowning jewel, “Fritz’s Corner.” You don’t have to strain too hard to hear the influence of Black Sabbath in the two-note guitar jabs that play under the verses or in Daniels’s rumbling tom rolls utterly laying bare grunge rock’s perpetually divided loyalties: that barely disguised love for big dick classic rock covered with a patina of punk spit and venom. Named after the band’s hometown bar, the song could be a less homicidal second cousin to Big Black’s “Kerosene.” ”I’m not mad/ I’m just bored/ And everything I do is only because/ There’s nothing much else for me to do/ And that includes you.” Lucas’s creations are often unsavory, angry, or pathetic, but few sink to the level of misanthropy of this hapless drunk whose disdain for all humanity extends ultimately to (and likely originates from) himself. The song heaves to an end with a shouted mantra of self-pity, ”I’m always ashamed and that’s the way to be,” and the listener has no doubt that this is the voice of one who has hit rock bottom and then made his home there.
Pack up the Cats was the logical extension of As Good as Dead, projecting the anti-trajectory of the former album’s losers and layabouts into the operatic arena of Big Time Rock ‘n’ Roll. Cats centers loosely around a small town band that finds itself inexplicably standing on the cusp of at rock stardom, only to spectacularly crash and burn. The increased attention the band was receiving in the wake of “Bound for the Floor” clearly weighed on their minds while making this record, something that Lucas seemed to react against instinctively, as evidenced by songs like “Cool Magnet” and “All Right (Oh Yeah)” (”You could never figure out/ What was all the fuss about/ I know it’s only me/ It’s only stupid me,” are some choice lyrics off the latter). The album’s moment of truth comes from its lead single “All the Kids Are Right,” recounting with uncomfortable candor the band’s deterioration over the course of an important concert that leaves them irrevocably isolated from their fans.
Ironically, for a song about a disastrous performance, it boasted what could easily be the catchiest hook of the band’s career, and a great big chorus that was built for singing along. In a more just and equitable world, it was a song that would have solidified their place as a major act, but it never made it past 20 on Billboard’s Alternative chart, and subsequent singles fared worse.
By the end of the year, a merger between Island and Universal Music Group resulted in Local H getting dropped from their label. Shortly thereafter Joe Daniels left the band to pursue other career options. For someone who has made his career chronicling the bitterness and frustrated hopes of others, Lucas seems to have taken these events with relative equanimity (even towards the label executives themselves, as suggested by an interview with The Red Alert: “You can’t really blame those people for being worried about how they’re going to bring home money to support their family and what’s going to happen to their job… People are human and they’ve got to eat.”), and he genuinely seems to appreciate the level of creative freedom that existing on the fringes of rock culture affords him. He would go on to partner with Brian St. Claire, a veteran of the Chicago scene who had previously drummed for Triple Fast Action and seminal Chicago hardcore band Rights of the Accused, and the duo continue to release a series of increasingly more complex and mature records that could still strip the paint from the walls.
For a band that only captured the fickle attentions of the public for an instant, Local H has left a powerful legacy. Lucas’s engineering wizardry made it possible for a two-man band to sound every bit as rich as a full ensemble, and he and Daniels went a long way towards proving the viability of the rock duo long before The White Stripes or The Black Keys were anywhere on the scene. But more importantly, Lucas showed that life after the majors doesn’t have to be a sad cavalcade of county fairs and cloying nostalgia grabs, by continuing to release album after album of vital music. Whether Universal really realizes it or not, “icon” sounds just about right for these guys.
1968, 1969: The Pretty Things and The Who - S.F. Sorrow V. Tommy
The impression may be one that’s influenced by a contemporary tendency to champion brave, neglected little albums of the 60s, but S.F. Sorrow (1968) comes across as a heroic effort for its good intentions and its neglected status as the first rock opera, predating The Who’s Tommy by a year.
The Pretty Thing’s everyman character S.F. Sorrow endures the stereotypical hardships of a minor character of the twentieth century. As a boy he follows his father to work at the local “Misery Factory.” He is whisked away from his sweetheart after a brief courtship. He survives the first war. He emigrates, loses his sweetheart in an airship crash and is eventually left emotionally and physically destitute, far from home. He never recovers.
The album is widely considered to be the The Pretty Thing’s masterpiece, but it also seems to have represented the death knell of their career. The disappointment it wrought on its unsuccessful release was a catalyst for original member Dick Taylor to leave the band.
Musically Tommy was more groundbreaking than S.F. Sorrow – it was an air punching, spiraling vortex of rock instrumentation that seemed to show a new way of making loud and intense music without leaning too heavily the blues. The Pretty Things had been a rhythm and blues band in their early days and had turned to psychedelia to make S.F. Sorrow, as if they’d sheepishly conceded that it was a better tool than the blues to tackle songs that were psychologically complex. Though less original, their experiments were more melodious and less grandiose than The Who’s, and the song structures were broken up into a series of distinct formal movements – Beatlesque and, unfortunately for them, released in the same year as White Album.
Neither Tommy nor S.F. Sorrow is much like an opera, but both are braced against the spine of a narrative, more similar in this regard to musical theatre than the Single driven LP. The differences between Tommy and S.F. Sorrow’s stories are all the more striking considering the importance of the narrative. Tommy is beset with adversity at the beginning of his life. He is blind and deaf as a result of trauma, and his family life is a mess; he is passed around between family members and a pedophile uncle before being rescued by good fortune. Sorrow is a more universal, featureless character, whose life and troubles are typical of the common 20th century man, ending up the victim of impersonal, utilitarian systems. Both are affected by war: Tommy’s father is absent because of war, and Sorrow is drafted to fight in WWI.
The Who’s Tommy is almost like the child of The Pretty Thing’s S.F. Sorrow, as if two renaissance playwrights writing at the same time had attacked generational themes using family hierarchies in the best way Tragedians knew how: by exploring the social hierarchies that crush us from without – starting from within. It would appear that 60s rockers understood the value of this public approach to family tragedy too; taking their cue from Freudian psychologists who had resurrected family drama in the public mindset. As the child born in the baby boom, Tommy is the natural celebrity on whom attention is focused. As the bereaved former soldier, Sorrow is the adult whose crushing responsibility makes him an obscure minor character. It is ironic that one is bullied and blessed for his unique disability, while the other is cursed for being willing, able and ordinary enough to be used as canon fodder. The families of Sorrow and Tommy are both doomed, but the child Tommy eventually leaves home and escapes the carnage, while the adult Sorrow has to stay in the ring and fight to the bitter end.
Just as Sorrow’s war is fated, The Pretty Things’s attempt to articulate the woes of the generation that kept sorrow bottled up was probably too close to the bone to be appreciated in their own time. The sorrow The Pretty Things’ parents’ generation experienced was fundamentally a “Private Sorrow”, as the title of the military marching song suggested.
From a commercial point of view, S.F. Sorrow’s plot was as suicidal as going over the top in the Somme. The album dwelled depressingly on past war wounds that could not be healed, and made a psychedelic Voodoo guide called Baron Saturday responsible for destroying the hero’s mind instead of opening it. By facing his fears, Sorrow loses his trust in everything, defying the gospel of psychoanalysis, which cured Tommy of his psychosomatic blindness and deafness. The album concludes pessimistically that some sorrows are too great to face. “Trust” is the track that really confronts the reality of this broken existence, and oddly it is notable for its breezy harmonies and happy-go-lucky psychedelic gait.
With their everyman heroes, who are tempted and molded by characters that are painted simply as vices and virtues, S.F. Sorrow and Tommy are more like medieval morality plays than rock operas. Audiences who attended these plays were deliberately enticed into the struggles of the protagonists by being persuaded to identify with them, to uncomfortably savor the immoral choices they could have made themselves in similar situations. Devilish characters in the role of tempters went around collecting money from the audience on behalf of the players, thus forcing audiences to pay the ‘devil’ for his performance. At performances of S.F. Sorrow, the devilish Arthur Brown, of The Crazy World of Arthur Brown (Brown was known to start fires deliberately onstage) read out the narrative of the album between songs, Twink as an inept mime acted out the story, and live performances of the album went off in shambolic, carnivalesque fashion.
But all of this did not do justice to the bleakness of the tribute paid to a generation whose sacrifices could not be recouped. Anticipating Pink Floyd’s The Wall, S.F. Sorrow mined the fragility behind the psychedelic experience, which was lodged in the desire to escape the oppressiveness of previous generations’ burdens. It may not have been commercially smart in the 1960s to suggest that self knowledge could actually shrink the soul, rather than expand it, but it was certainly brave. The Pretty Things were not credited with inventing the rock opera, but credit is due to them for willingly and even naively opening their psyches to a troubling past, not a dazzlingly optimistic future. This openness is perhaps what has made them seem more like guinea pigs than innovators, but it also brought them closer to their protagonist, and made their tribute more profound than if they’d just puckishly picked over the ruins of their parents’ generation without making a sacrifice. As clownish rockers who used their outsider status to influence punters who were ‘paying for the devil’ when they witnessed a story of despair for entertainment’s sake, The Pretty Things put themselves on the line to express the sorrows of a generation who would never have publicly expressed it without the help of their privileged offspring.
2004: Josephine Foster - Fate Song #1: “Deathknell”
It sometimes feels appropriate to reduce a compilation to just one song – a song with an impact that resets the concept of the list altogether, displacing all the other contenders like an overweight diver emptying a swimming pool. What would this song have to do to qualify? Well I’d like to think of it as analogous to the Ace, the number one card, which represents both the highest and lowest score in a game. Its effect should be minimal, or unbeatable, or both.
Some examples spring to mind, most notably Carly Simon’s ultra famous put down. Enough has been said about this for reams of TMT Deloreans that will never be written, because enough has been said about it. Still, it’s useful to recall that the reason this song was successful was because it was – amongst other things – deeply ironic. In order to wield irony subtly, you have to understand the rules of the game. Songs that use irony against their own genre can contain the whole weary perspective of the songwriting world, viewed through the eyes of one who understands not only the world of love and heartbreak, but the garden path lined with the songs that get you there (it’s true that the road to hell is paved with mixtapes).
The protagonist in DBC Pierre’s novel Vernon God Little, for example, loves and hates his “Fate songs”, which are usually ballads or country songs promoting outsize feelings of love and loneliness, as insidious and infectious as “fucken herpes.” Josephine Foster and the Supposed’s “Deathknell” is an alterno/freak-folk/what-have-you fate song that uses a blustering argument about fate itself to mount an attack on some unknown victim. This dirge is set in a bygone era, where an assassin will come to your door on foot. Although it has its roots in folk, it’s more Emily Dickinson than Bob Dylan, expressing a god-fearing (rather than man-fearing) instinct that we’re all doomed, and our appointed time is approaching.
In Foster’s stormy rant, some woman is angry somewhere. It’s nothing new. She knows this herself, and she paints her own mother and herself into the unwritten and evidently futile tradition of vengeful women: “I had a mother / Her mother had a mother / No one remembers her name.” But it’s more direct than that, as the song is addressed to some prideful sinner in particular: “You think you are strong, you are wrong, wrong, wrong.”
Although Foster puts her little rant into a perspective of vast marauding forces – the angel of death and the spectre of physical frailty – it’s easy to forget that this thundering diatribe may have originated as a dig against one poor solitary soul. Whatever was originally intended, its angry tone has managed to be both universal and personal. As revenge room 101s go, it seems impersonal, more of a planetarium than a claustrophobic cell, but just as whoever enters can imagine that they were chosen to experience a cosmic wake-up call in the warning tones of a folk harpie, whoever was actually addressed by this song is conspicuously absent; they have turned to dust as the song foretold.
“Deathknell” may not be the most typical example of an ironic pop ‘fate song’, given that it’s outside the usual attempt to subvert the ingratiating radio friendly vernacular, but for me it shares the subtle appeal of those other kinds of pop songs that insist they aren’t whatever they say they are. It walks that same tricky line in projecting a seemingly unambiguous sentiment while expressing something subtler, as with the cautionary tale of Bruce Springsteen and his anti-war popsong “Born in the USA”, a tune whose irony was lost when it became a patriotic anthem. This is the fate of the nursery rhyme, which speaks in nonsense terms to comment subtly on court intrigues, incompetent (or incontinent) Ministers of State, and abuses of power; all specifics of a time that will ultimately be forgotten. Other times, the song doesn’t do what it says on the label, and never invites any major scrutiny of its genre, such as PIL’s “This is Not a Lovesong”, which was a commentary on the record industry’s obsession with smooth ballads, and not in fact a lovesong.
Mostly, however, what these high card efforts have in common is the attempt to make the perfect godlike move in the realm of pop music: the love song that repackages bile into the sweetest of rueful ironies (Stephen Merritt of The Magnetic Fields is an adept); the song of vengeance that’s so biblical in its vehemence, it can’t be pinned down to specific targets; the anti-war song that’s so vitriolic it apes the swagger of patriotism.
It may be no coincidence that the very next track after “Deathknell” is called “Silly Song”. Unlike “Deathknell”’s assault of raw, resonant guitars, twanging like drunkenness on the verge of turning ugly, “Silly Song” twangs in the laid back San Francisco folk style Foster’s band The Supposed have chosen to adopt, but strips back several layers to reveal a sad and desolate morning after (there’s even a whistle to accompany the lonely walk home). Neither of these tracks is exactly playful, but together they illustrate the way ‘just a silly song’ can be played with in a variety of ways. No matter how silly the song is, it can speak a volume of damage: the damage done, and the damage inflicted. This irony embedded in seemingly unambiguous pop sentiment always appears to convey a vaguely contemptuous attitude to the genre, often wearing the mask of a nursery rhyme to make a point about the emotional disingenuousness that exists outside pop music, in the baby talk of lovers for example.
One of the qualities of the Ace is the potential to blow it. It wasn’t always the highest card in the game. In the Middle Ages it was the lowest roll and traditionally meant ‘bad luck.’ Later it began to shapeshift between highest and lowest card. Because it can be played as either in contemporary card games, it is usually considered a game changer. In this way it represents a valuable move that can either open up a list of successive moves, or blow them all in one fell swoop. The analogy between this high/low card and the kind of pop song that tries to go above and beyond the call of its genre fits because the song wearily wields all its antecedents and possible succedents, like a card that has the potential to make a very significant move from a seemingly unassuming place. This is the song that blows all the rest out of the water just to make a point.
The Ace is also used nowadays to describe someone who’s a whizz at their sport, a number one. But what’s it like at the top? Is it lonely? Is it isolating to take the most exacting vengeance, or make the most subtle statement about love? In the original Socratic definition of irony, the “eiron” was a falsely modest person, who triumphed through feigning innocence while wielding a concealed wit. Pop has often played the simpleton, meanwhile delivering a stinging message. In “Deathknell”, overestimation rather than underestimation is Foster’s medium of communication; she delivers an overblown rant to alienate once and for all anyone who’s on the fence about outsider female vocalists. However, by playing this harpie role, she overplays vengeance to the point of universality, and gets herself off the hook for a possible personal gripe. It is time, not the singer, that disgraces “the strong” who are “weak and a waste of this song”; she herself acknowledges no part, as she counts herself among the victims of fate, guaranteeing her anonymity. If this is deliberate, it’s a fairly stunning move, but it feels as isolating as detonating a curse that cannot be taken back.
In overdoing its wrathfulness, “Deathknell” joins the rank of the most calculated pop songs which beg to be underestimated as sweet confections, or garrulous patriotic folk songs, or incoherent rants. They’re lonely and singular because they’re not really keeping the company they say they are; the silly songs they claim to imitate have the power to do so much more damage than the low value assigned to them as popular art. This is the reason why it’s hard to know if “Deathknell” is a really a song about kicking ass or blowing your chances. Like the Ace, it has the potential to be a bit of both.