Album Assignments: 11

The Smithereens never made it to the top of the pops, but lots of Gen X-ers like me have fond memories of their late-Eighties run, and 11 was their peak. Of course, their peak was a little difficult to distinguish from the rest of their arc, because consistency is one of the band’s defining characteristics. “Blood And Roses” and “Behind The Wall Of Sleep” hit alternative radio in 1986, and colleges were rocking out to “A Girl Like You” three years later, but they might as well have come from the same album.

For that matter, “A Girl Like You”, “Blues Before And After”, “Baby Be Good”, and “Yesterday Girl” are so similar to each other that when one of them is running through my head it tends to seamlessly blend into one of the others, Beatles Love style. This isn’t a slam — it may be kinda like one long song, but it’s a great song! And it’s not like that’s the Smithereens’ only mood. “Blue Period” exudes a matter-of-fact melancholy, and “Kiss Your Tears Away” is a lovely, loving goodnight.

Still, the rockers are the band’s strength and it’s no accident that they were the first three singles from this album. “A Girl Like You” is a fine pop song, but I think “Yesterday Girl” is the best version of Smithereens rock on 11. The riff and the melody counterpoint each other marvelously, and the lyrics cleverly play with time and meaning, switching from “that was yesterday, girl” to “you’re my yesterday girl” to show how the narrator has moved on without bitterness. “When I think about religion, well, there’s no one to blame” was a line that resonated strongly with me in the song’s heyday.

Album cover for 11

I also have a special fondness for “The Blues Before And After”, because I used it as the title for a huge independent study project I wrote in college, tracing lyrical themes from blues artists like Sonny Boy Williamson and Muddy Waters through the rock and roll of Chuck Berry and The Beatles. And who do I have to thank for that inspired title? The guy who assigned this album to me, Robby Herd.

The title was apt because just as my project traced influence through a chain, so do the Smithereens wear their influences on their sleeves. Their riff-y rockers are stamped straight from the template created by The Who and The Kinks. The harpsichord solo in “Blue Period” is a direct homage to the one in The Beatles’ “In My Life” (though, granted, the Beatles didn’t use a harpsichord but rather a piano played back at double speed.) And when Pat DiNizio sings “I believe in true love ways” for “Maria Elena”, he’s declaring allegiance to Buddy Holly.

How interesting, then, that the band who so deftly apes their heroes and whose songs so often strongly echo each other should nod on this album to the classic Edgar Allan Poe doppelgänger story “William Wilson.” In Poe’s story, the narrator tells a story of his childhood and young adulthood, during which he was haunted by another boy with the same name, the same birthday, and (it’s hinted) the same face. As his double ruins scheme after scheme, the narrator finally stabs him in frustration, at which time it’s revealed that the other William Wilson was something like the narrator’s conscience.

In The Smithereens’ song, by contrast, the narrator “tell[s] no stories” and “sleep[s] good at night.” But still he’s haunted by a William Wilson, a source of heartache who could only be abolished with music, and even then not always successfully. The narrator wants to be like him, wants to talk to him, and he lies in bed wondering about the life he’s led. Finally, the narrator understands that “we’re both just the same” and declares that his own name is William Wilson.

What I hear in this song is two kinds of doubling — first, the idea of an alternate self who made different choices, hence “wondering about the life you led.” Second, there’s the alter ego along the lines of the Poe story, an internal voice who wrecks our desire for a simple life with complicated thoughts, which can’t always be dispelled no matter how loud we turn up the speakers. When the narrator hears “there’s no one to blame but William Wilson,” it’s the voice of his conscience talking about himself. There’s also one slight other possibility, if we speculate that there’s more than one “you” addressed in the song — the notion of William Wilson as the man an ex ends up with. In that case, she’s the one who says that no one’s to blame but William Wilson, and “let him run wild” is the narrator’s desire to see his ex ditch the other William.

It’s an intellectually satisfying song on a musically satisfying album, one that beautifully reflects the Smithereens’ own strongest tendencies. As underground peaks go, that’s pretty rich.

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