Half Japanese Overjoyed

[Joyful Noise; 2014]

Styles: mental-hygiene rock, self-help indie
Others: Beat Happening, The Feelies, Pavement, cognitive behavioral therapy

It’s tempting to hate on an album like Overjoyed. Shamelessly upbeat, unapologetically life-affirming, and not to mention yet another leap away from the juvenile no-wave that first baptized Half Japanese in the early 80s; its Prozac indie snappily mocks every principle of self-flagellation and martyred suffering that art is purported to embody. The idea that someone could have the temerity to even entertain the notion of optimistic music is enough to make us rockists vomit over our Schopenhauer anthologies, so when the Fair clan go ahead and chock their first album in 13 years with motivational workouts and everything-is-great salvos, we tend to spill out in hives. Yet as much as my incurable cynicism goaded me into writing a hatchet-job for what is (at the very least) the 14th Half Japanese album, its energized cheeriness eventually proves itself at once disarming and salutary.

Much of this cheery yeasaying is arguably a product of age. Beginning with the dogged bass-pulse and excitedly rising quadruplets of “In Its Pull,” every celebratory splash on Overjoyed is characterized by a giddy acceptance of all things, with the old man that Jad Fair has inevitably become no doubt figuring chief amongst these. At 60, he’s attained that biological ripeness where the ability to fight against anything objectionable has been weakened, which explains happily resigned songs like “Meant To Be That Way,” where the untiring jumping-jack tempo reinforces the peppy affirmation of a couplet like, “Red and yellow and orange and blue/ Ever so fine and ever so true.” Here, it’s almost as if he’s asserting that everything in his life is as necessary and inviolable as the colors of the rainbow, and when the song reaches the distorted whipping of its climax, his transformation of its title into a fiery slogan removes the “as if.”

And fiery slogans enjoy more than one appearance on Overjoyed, with its unrelenting and often studied postivity making it read like the musical adaptation of some self-help guide or a set of musical exercises lifted from a cognitive behavioral therapy regime. In “Do It Nation,” the clanging guitars and hammering drums power Fair’s unswerving insistence on the mantra, “Do it do it do it do it do it do it do it do it,” and during “Shining Star,” he takes his cue from brash riffing to share such nuggets as, “Say no to skies of grey,” “Say no to the cranks,” and “A brand new day has just been born.” What’s semi-ironic is that this all stands in marked contrast to the neurotic agitation and jitteriness of the band’s younger and supposedly more carefree days, with the hi-fidelity of Overjoyed’s production, its adherence to more conventional song structures, and Fair’s assuredly measured delivery all complementing the group’s latter-day compliance with everything that the twilight years throw at them.

One element of continuity between earlier and later incarnations of the band, however, is the fixation on dealings with the opposite sex. Of course, with Overjoyed these dealings are in no way dysfunctional or destructive, yet they nonetheless remain at the forefront of Fair’s consciousness, with the sultry melodics of “The Time is Now” unfolding as an endearingly intoxicated love letter in which he uncritically praises everything about his “darling.” Its syrupy punch-drunkenness will probably raise more than a few eyebrows of disapproval, but it still manages to reveal something interesting about the album’s thematic seesaw between affirmative whoopees and unsullied relationships. With lines like “Don’t ever let your time pass you by” and “The day is ours,” and their juxtaposition with such adorations as “I like everything about you, darling,” it gives the impression that, for Fair, acceptance of the women in his life represents a medium into his acceptance of life as a whole. And regardless of whether or not you agree that the secret to happiness is simply love, it seems that for the bulk of Overjoyed, Fair’s uncomplicated delight in the universe equates to delight in a lover transposed onto a larger plane.

This conflation also emerges in the light-footed “Our Love,” where a sparky lead inspires Fair with the buoyancy to chime, “Hooray today/ Hooray tomorrow/ We’ve got it made/ The opposite of sorrow.” He’s then pinged onward to exclaim, “Our love will never flop,” and while it would be all-too easy to throw disdain on his naivety here and cite, I don’t know, divorce statistics, the increasing selfishness and individualism that defines people in the 21st century, or even the importance of a little romantic strife once in a while, there’s something appealing about his oblivious confidence in all things. Clearly, the following is just a personal opinion, but far too much “serious” music reduces to a self-fulfilling prophecy of maladjustment, misfortune, and misery, as if its social function were merely to deepen and consolidate the lowly status of all us disenfranchised losers. Therefore, when the guitars blithely jump around during “Overjoyed and Thankful” and Fair recites “Into our lives, love has come/ And it’s here to stay,” or when the three-chord exuberance of “As Good Can Be” declares “I’ve got to say what I’ve got say/ Today, everything is going to be A-OK/ Today, everyday is a good day/ As good as good can be,” it’s hard not to find a part of yourself cheering on his determination to make a habit of positive thinking.

Yet as much as Overyjoyed wins us over to its sanguine dogmatism, there’s the contention that the acceptance it espouses is ultimately antithetical to art, which if nothing else is based on challenging the environment we find ourselves in and the representations that frame it. And even if you could counter-argue that its brightness is in fact a challenge to the dreariness of rock itself, its attachments to stylistic and compositional familiars entail that few aesthetic challenges are offered as a partner to its remedial worldview, so that despite contradicting the doomy message conveyed by most rock, it perpetuates the medium that’s synonymous with such a message. Consequently, for all the contagious fun of every “Shining Star” and “Meant To Be That Way,” there are also inoffensive and nondescript trickles like “Each Other’s Arms” and “We Are Sure,” where gentlemanly strumming introduces us to the well-meaning condescension of “Well, Jad Fair tells you/ That you are great/ And Jad Fair ain’t no liar/ You are first rate.” However, despite one or two forgettable missteps, and despite the occasional triteness of its therapeutic lyrics, there’s a lot to be said for the superiority of clichés like “I am first rate” over those like “I hate myself and want to die.”

Links: Half Japanese - Joyful Noise

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