Album Assignments: In The Wee Small Hours

When In The Wee Small Hours was released in 1955, 12-inch LPs had only been around for a few years. Frank Sinatra, a restless innovator, had the notion of creating an LP whose songs had a thematic unity — songs of loneliness, heartbreak, and lovelorn disappointment. This theme was no doubt abetted by Sinatra’s own recent heartbreak, the dissolution of his relationship with Ava Gardner. In fact, Sinatra called this collection his “Ava songs,” and in collecting them he’s credited with creating one of the first concept albums.

It’s a little different, though, from what the words “concept album” evoke today. That term now brings up thoughts of, say, The Wall, or American Idiot, or Tommy — a collection of songs that tells a story and expresses the singular vision of a songwriter. But Sinatra wasn’t a songwriter — he was an interpreter. He gets a rare co-writing credit on “This Love Of Mine” (with two other people), but the rest of the songs on Small Hours come from the Great American Songbook produced by writers such as Cole Porter, Harold Arlen, Rogers and Hart, and Duke Ellington. Sinatra deserves an innovator’s credit, but I’d say this album is closer to the angst-filled mixtapes I referenced in my previous post.

As a mix, Sinatra’s chosen songs reflect his theme from a variety of angles. “Can’t We Be Friends?” finds him cursing his own naiveté, as the girl he thought would be “The One” relegates him to the friend zone. He takes full responsibility for fooling himself though — compare his “I can’t excuse it on the grounds of youth / I was no babe in the wild, wild wood” to Sinéad O’Connor’s “How could I possibly know what I want when I was only 21?” On the other side of that, “Last Night When We Were Young” portrays a lover left behind after a night of passion, feeling impossibly aged by the disappointment, prefiguring Adele’s “When We Were Young” by 60 years.

Album cover for In The Wee Small Hours

Some of the songs are drenched in irony, like “I Get Along Without You Very Well”, which finds its narrator boasting of how just fine and dandy he is after the breakup… except when it rains, or when he hears her name, or a laugh that reminds him of her, or “perhaps in Spring / But I should never think of Spring / For that would surely break my heart in two.” Similarly, in “Dancing On The Ceiling”, the lyrics proclaim that “the world is lyrical / because a miracle / has brought my lover to me”. But it turns out that “miracle” is just the narrator lying in bed, staring at the ceiling, imagining his departed lover is dancing there.

This juxtaposition of tough and hurt gives many of Sinatra’s songs a kind of wounded bravado, which would have felt familiar to fans of Humphrey Bogart, Raymond Chandler, and noir stories in general. But gathering all these songs together, only a few of which have a tough-guy veneer, paints a picture that’s much more wounded than brave. Sinatra’s choice to do this arguably expanded the emotional palette of 1950s masculinity, allowing men a model within which they could fall deeply into hurt feelings without having to accompany them with anger, violence, or externalization. Many of the songs on Wee Small Hours find Sinatra’s narrators ruefully acknowledging their culpability in their own heartbreak, such as “Can’t We Be Friends?” and the “you told me so” of “It Never Entered My Mind.”

However, a downside of this concentrated collection is that it can get a little samey. Sinatra’s style has a few different modes, but he only displays one on this album: melancholy. As I said, he’s an interpreter, and puts himself in service to the song. Because all the songs come from pretty much the same place emotionally, so does he — over and over. The concept on this album is strong, but it can get a little oppressive too.

It’s telling that none of the songs in this collection were hits for Sinatra. The same year as this album, he had three Top Ten hits: “Learnin’ The Blues”, “Love And Marriage”, and “(Love Is) The Tender Trap”, all of which were sung more in Sinatra’s sprightly mode than his melancholy one. That’s partly down to the era — there was a pretty strong distinction between singles and albums at this time, and unlike most of the albums I’ve discussed, this one wasn’t recorded to be a platform for hit songs. But unlike songs from later concept albums, such as “You Make Me Feel So Young” from Songs For Swingin’ Lovers! and “One For My Baby (and One More For The Road)” from Only The Lonely, you won’t find many Wee Small Hours tunes on contemporary hit collections either.

The exception to this is the title track, which distinguishes itself from the rest of the album despite (or perhaps because of) its status as the thesis statement for the entire thing.

In the wee small hours of the morning
When the whole wide world is fast asleep
You lie awake and think about the girl
And never ever think of counting sheep

That verse encapsulates the mood of the whole album. Similarly, the cover does an amazing job of conveying mood, showing Sinatra all alone in an abstracted city, smoking a lonely cigarette in the blue, blue streetlight glow.

But of course, it’s Sinatra’s voice that does the greatest and best work of communicating loneliness and pain. Just three minutes of “I’ll Never Be The Same” gives us long, fading, vulnerable notes; surging dynamics at powerful moments; quiet syllables of regret; and repeating motifs in escalating notes, ascending higher even as they reach deeper. Nobody could touch him in this style, then or now, and In The Wee Small Hours finds him at the peak of his powers.

Album Assignments: I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got

In my circle, this was pretty much the album of the year for 1990. There were some dissenters, but for the most part, we listened to it a lot and we loved it a lot. I was interning at a local radio station at the time, and I remember how blown away everybody was by O’Connor’s wrenching vocal on “Nothing Compares 2 U.” If you went through a breakup in that year — and I did — several tracks from this were sure to end up on an angst-filled mixtape or two. At the time, it seemed like the absolute perfect divorce album.

Listening to it again, nearly 30 years later, I find that it hasn’t lost much of its luster as a chronicle of heartbreak. But it’s gained some new dimensions for me. Maybe it’s just me projecting what I know of O’Connor’s subsequent public life, and what I’ve learned from my own subsequent experience, but I no longer hear just the voice of somebody going through a terrible breakup — I hear the voice of somebody going through a terrible breakup while mentally ill.

“Mentally ill” isn’t a negative judgment in my sight, and in fact I strongly support efforts to decrease the stigma of that label. It’s just a description of the reality that some people have to live with, and I think at least at the time of this album, O’Connor was one of them.

Album cover for I Do Not Want What I Haven't Got

Think about the image at the beginning of the album’s most staggeringly powerful song, “The Emperor’s New Clothes”:

It seems years since you held the baby
While I wrecked the bedroom

When I heard that at 20 years old, I just thought, “Wow, intense.” Now, maybe it’s because I’m a parent, but I picture that scene — you’ve had a child with someone, and you find yourself holding that tiny child, watching while she, possessed by an overwhelming rage and absolutely no impulse control, physically tears apart the house you share.

At that moment, watching it happen, your future spills out before you. Your partner, your child’s mother, is a violent danger to you both, and herself. It’s a fucking terrifying image. “You said it was dangerous after Sunday,” the next line goes, and no wonder. Someone with that level of anger, who will actually wreck the bedroom, is somebody you have to get away from, and protect your child from, until she can get that shit under control.

Now, O’Connor points to a lot of places to explain herself. She gestures at youth — “How could I possibly know what I want when I was only 21?” She blames hormones — “You know how it is and how a pregnancy can change you.” She lines up behind Honesty — “You asked for the truth, and I told you.” She places her fear in the context of an equally scary dependency — “I would return to nothing without you, if I’m your girlfriend or not.” And yeah, it’s certainly true that there’s overlap between the symptoms of mental illness and the symptoms of youth, pregnancy, and romantic extremes, but as somebody who has been through or next to all three, I can vouch for the fact that they don’t reliably cause violent outbursts of fury.

“The Emperor’s New Clothes” isn’t the only song that finds O’Connor seeming genuinely disturbed. How about this expression: “If you said jump in the river I would / Because it would probably be a good idea”? Or this image, referencing babies: “In my soul / my blood and my bones / I have wrapped your cold bodies around me”? Even the covers she chooses are pretty unsettling. “Nothing Compares 2 U” opens with the starkly obsessed, “It’s been seven hours and fifteen days / Since you took your love away.” And “I Am Stretched On Your Grave” pretty much speaks for itself.

And yet, god damn does she make it sound good. “The Emperor’s New Clothes” is an absolutely riveting track, just as inspiring and hypnotic the 500th time through as it was the first. When she declares, “Whatever it may bring / I will live by my own policies / I will sleep with a clear conscience / I will sleep in peace”, I find myself thinking “HELL YEAH.” That’s been a central quote in my life for years, and I can’t see that changing anytime soon. And when I put “I Am Stretched On Your Grave” on a heartbroken mixtape, I related deeply to its imagery, not to mention its haunting backbeat. Like I said, there’s overlap.

Also, I realize that many of the album’s songs are heavily figurative. I know she’s not literally haunted in “You Cause As Much Sorrow,” nor actually clutching dead infants in “Three Babies,” nor actually turning into birds in “I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got.” In fact, in several places I really have no idea what she’s on about, and a cursory online search hasn’t turned up much information except for the fact that she was still grieving her mother’s death from five years earlier.

I still love this album. O’Connor’s voice is a natural wonder, and her production showcases it immaculately. Her songwriting (aside from “Jump In The River,” which is a notch below everything else) is first rate, and several of the songs on this album are as good as she ever got. And it’s been an awfully long time (thank god) since I’ve been through the kind of relationship angst that infuses I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got, so perhaps I have a distance from it now that I lacked when it came out. I just see it now as an artifact of someone baring a tortured soul, and I hope she’s gotten the help she needed to find peace since then.

Album Assignments: Middle Cyclone

I don’t fully understand the effect that Neko Case’s voice has on me. It is mystical and potent, a controlled substance made of sound. All I know is that when I hear it, I feel it down to my cells. That effect reaches its zenith on Middle Cyclone, her sensational 2009 album. The album doesn’t rest on her voice alone, though. That voice stands atop a foundation of incredible songwriting, nervy production, and excellent musicianship.

I’ll get to all that, but first I want to talk about the voice some more. It’s an extraordinary instrument, capable of ramping from a hesitant tenderness to a thrilling clarion call in moments. Listen to “Red Tide” — she starts out narrating, with just a bit of suspense as she trails her tone at the end of lines, and then stretches out the word “line.” The “ah-ah-ah-ah”s amp up the tension, and she delivers the second verse with just a bit more intensity than the first. Then the instruments build to another verse where she declaims the words with vibrant authority, reaching an emotional peak on “remember.”

But it turns out that’s not the peak after all! She ascends the bridge, hitting the highest notes of the song so far, then sliding down before stabbing up to another high note and finishing on “sinister”, which sounds not only sinister but outright threatening.

By the final lines of the song, she is at her full-throated best, investing the words with such power and passion that I cannot doubt she really is singing of life and death, of thrusting a defiant life in the face of death. She saves the highest note for the final line of the song, and then returns to “ah-ah-ah-ah”s whose tone says, “just try and argue with that, I dare you.”

Album cover for Middle Cyclone

I’m isolating her voice here, which isn’t quite fair, as the song gains plenty of its power from its marvelous arrangement and its chilling poetry. When all those things come together, the alchemy of Neko Case music reaches its ultimate heights. It’s just that the voice itself is so powerful to me — it pulls up feelings from inside me like threads, stretching them out and leaving me changed.

The voice works beautifully when it’s barely adorned, as in “Middle Cyclone”, but the album has much more instrumental creativity on offer. Famously, Case had turned her Vermont barn into a home for wayward pianos. A couple of tuners got six of them into playable shape, and the resulting “piano orchestra” appears on several tracks, most affectingly on “Don’t Forget Me”, a gentle Harry Nilsson cover.

Elsewhere we find Neko accompanied by custom music boxes, such as the one that chimes off-kilter into “The Next Time You Say Forever”, setting the song askew, setting up prickles at the back of the neck that the droning cellos do nothing to assuage, and lending an uneasy authenticity to Case’s promise in the lyrics: “The next time you say forever / I will punch you in your face / Just because you don’t believe it / Doesn’t mean I didn’t mean it.”

There are plenty of genuinely avant-garde moments on this album, even setting aside the thirty minutes of cricket chirps that comprise its final track. But even when her vocal gems are set in traditional filigree, like the Simon and Garfunkel-style guitar of “Vengeance Is Sleeping”, spine-tingling estrangement still abounds, thanks to the lyrics.

So let’s talk about those lyrics. Here are some from “Vengeance”:

I didn’t know what a brute I was
I dipped my cigarette and rode the bus
Vengeance built me hastily
And I dragged a clanging notion I was nobody, nobody
Nobody

All I had was my invention
And my love invented all of you
Oh, look what thoughts can do
What thoughts can do

If you’re not by now dead and buried
You’re most certifiably married
Oh, married

My god. I kept trying to trim that quote down, and then kept restoring it. “Nope,” I would say. “I need more of it.” There’s an Emily Dickinson quote that I love, and it applies here:

If I read a book [and] it makes my whole body so cold no fire can ever warm me, I know that is poetry. If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry. These are the only ways I know it. Is there any other way?

Neko Case’s lyrics take the top of my head off. They’re enhanced, too, by the stories she told on her episode of The Hilarious World Of Depression podcast. She left a home of alcoholism, drug abuse, physical abuse, and neglect at 15 years old. She’d get loaded on whatever drugs she could find and ride the city bus around town all day. Later, after dialing down the drugs, she’d tour relentlessly to keep herself too busy to feel what she was feeling.

When asked what she was tamping down, she replies, “Anxiety, restlessness. Needing to be loved, and seeing that as a weakness.”

And here again, her poetry crystallizes that experience, this time a lyric from “Middle Cyclone”:

I can’t give up acting tough
It’s all that I’m made of
Can’t scrape together quite enough
To ride the bus to the outskirts of the fact that I need love

She goes on, later in that same quote: “I wanna be loved, and like, held on to. You know what I mean? And part of that is being young and part of that is being an actual… human being, who is also an animal species. There are things we cannot live without.”

From “I’m An Animal”:

You could say it’s my instinct
Yes, I still have one
There’s no time to second-guess it
Yes, there are things that I’m still so afraid of
But my courage is roaring like the sound of the sun
‘Cause it’s vain about its mane and will reveal them to no one

I’m an animal
You’re an animal, too

Here’s the thing, though. In the podcast, she talks about being faced with these realizations in 2010. This album came out the year before. These songs are the parts of Neko Case that she wasn’t quite yet ready to hear, expressing themselves through her music to speak truths that hadn’t quite reached the left side of her brain.

They have the force of prophecy, and the profound mythical resonance of dreams. They gather strength when set into Case’s melodies and the arrangements she co-crafts with Paul Rigby. And then, when she channels them through that phenomenal instrument in her throat, they become that loving tornado, that killer whale, that magpie to the morning whose warning cannot be denied. They speak with the voices of goddesses.

Album Assignments: Highway 61 Revisited

So here’s the thing with Highway 61 Revisited. It’s hard to find anything new to say about this album. Entire books have been written on the topic, and I’ve even read some of them. I also wrote extensively about “Desolation Row” since it was quoted in Watchmen. Not to mention the three different posts I’ve already written about Bob Dylan in this Album Assignments series. I don’t have a whole lot more to say about him.

So I’m taking a different approach with this post, a more personal approach. I write a lot about how music feels to me, and I often try to capture with words how a particular song or moment works, but while I will sometimes introduce that stuff with a little bit about my life, I tend to write about music a lot and life very little. But music is woven into my life, and among other things serves me as touchstones, allowing me to time travel back to specific moments that emblematize greater relationships or themes.

Take “Like A Rolling Stone”. Obviously it’s a rock classic, and a huge milestone in Dylan’s career, and your local library is full of explanations about that. But I listen to the first two lines of it, and more often than not, I have Bob Herd in my head. That story you won’t find in the library.

Album cover of Highway 61 Revisited

Robby and I cemented our friendship when I was about 15 years old. We spent a lot of time at each other’s houses in high school, and during summers and breaks in our college years. So that meant we got to spend a lot of time with each other’s parents. Robby’s dad Bob was a kindly giant to me, a big tall goofball with Texas roots who would always try to crack us up as he made his way through the house. He was always especially good to me — in fact one time we even hung out together without Robby around, as we both really wanted to see Tim Burton’s 1989 Batman movie and Robby had zero interest.

Bob loved classic rock in general, but specifically he was a huge Dylan fan. Robby tells me how on Sundays, his dad would sit down with him and play through some favorite record, pointing out great bits and telling stories as they’d listen. That’s where Robby’s appreciation of Dylan came from, or at least where it started. Bob and I would talk Dylan sometimes too, taking turns rhapsodizing about the musicians and especially the lyrics.

I have an image of Bob in my head. He’s coming down the stairs in Robby’s old house, while Robby and I are hanging out in the living room. His steps are heavy, and once he’s sure he has our attention, he drawls out: “Once upon a time you dressed so fine! Threw the bums a dime, in your prime!” A call, waiting for a response. We wouldn’t let him down, giving it our best nasal Dylan as we belted, “Didn’t youuuuuu!” We all three laughed at each other’s silliness, having a blast.

Bob passed away in 2007, much too young. When I hear “Like A Rolling Stone” now, I feel like he’s with me, just for a few moments, right at the same time as I wish that I could see him again.

There’s another touchstone for me at the beginning of the song “Highway 61 Revisited.” Dylan blows this wacky siren whistle a couple of times in the first five seconds of that song, a wild and silly sound that immediately sets the song apart from any other rock and roll tune before or since. Plenty of ink has been spilled about that creative choice, but none of it is about my friend Tashi.

Tashi and I worked together for many years at the University of Colorado, first for the central IT office that serves all the campuses, and then for the Boulder campus IT group. At various times I was his peer, his manager, and his colleague. He’s one of my favorite co-workers ever, and pretty much one of my favorite people in the world. Like me, he loves comedy and music, and he especially appreciates when they come together.

Tashi and I shared an office for a long time, which was the source of many a delightful conversation, sometimes trying to make each other think but usually trying to make each other laugh. At one point I was working and I suddenly heard, out of nowhere, those few notes of organ and — wOOOOOOooooo! — that siren whistle. Then it almost immediately stopped. I looked up, and the sound repeated. It was then I realized that Tashi had made that his ringtone. Hilarious.

Health issues eventually forced Tashi out of his job at CU, but we’re still friends. He comes over pretty regularly to help tutor Dante in math, not because math is a huge struggle for Dante but because Tashi absolutely loves it and gets immense pleasure from helping teach it. Much to Dante’s delight, Tashi always sticks around after the math work to play a board game or computer game or something. Our whole family loves having him around, because not only is he a wonderful mentor to Dante, he’s also super fun and incredibly funny. That siren whistle pretty much nails how I feel about him. wOOOOOOooooo!

I’ve got lots more memories attached to this stuff. Robby and I were counselors in the early 90s at a college-style camp for gifted middle and high school kids – they stayed in dorms at night, took awesome classes during the day, and participated in counselor-led activities in the afternoons and evenings. Some of the time was just “dorm time”, where the kids could hang out, play cards, and whatnot, while counselors stationed themselves at some central location. I remember clearly my little boombox in the center of a first floor dorm hallway, blasting out this album and some others (Freewheelin’, Another Side) to a small cadre of fascinated kids, getting intiated into the mysteries that had captured generations prior to theirs.

More recently, I had the pleasure of seeing Bryan Ferry in concert, and he played a cover of “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues” that gave me major goosebumps. And now that moment is with me too, even as I dig Dylan’s very different version. Like Pretenders II, this is an album I just never get tired of. I could listen to it over and over, and sometimes I do, because it brings back such happiness to me, and more great memories await.

Album Assignments: The Midnight Organ Fight

Scott Hutchison, singer and songwriter for the Scottish band Frightened Rabbit, wrote their 2008 album The Midnight Organ Fight after the disintegration of a romantic relationship, and it shows. It’s a classic breakup album, a portrait of intense emotional pain, and Hutchison’s heartbreak pours out of song after song, through both his writing and his vocal delivery. It’s not a hopeless album, though. Moments of humor and sweetness thread through the record, albeit sometimes only highlighting how dark their surroundings are.

There’s a throwaway track called “Who’d You Kill Now” at the end of the album, but the real peak is the penultimate song, “Floating In The Forth”, which lays out the agony starkly but lands on uplift:

So you just stepped out
Of the front of my house
And I’ll never see you again
I closed my eyes for a second
And when they opened
You weren’t there
And the door shut shut
I was vacuum packed
Shrink-wrapped out of air
And the spine collapsed
And the eyes rolled back
To stare at my starving brain

And fully clothed, I float away
Down the Forth, into the sea
I think I’ll save suicide for another day.

It’s hard not to just quote the whole thing. Hutchison captures the final gut-punch perfectly, that moment when you know that the whole thing is well and truly over. He describes himself standing on the Forth Road Bridge, wondering if there is peace beneath, asking, “Am I ready to leap?” In the final words of the song, he says, “I think I’ll save suicide for another year.”

Sadly, he meant it. On May 9, 2018, just a few weeks after the 10th anniversary of The Midnight Organ Fight, Scott Hutchison went missing. His body was found the next day, on the banks of the river Forth, near the Forth Road Bridge. He was 36 years old.

Album cover for The Midnight Organ Fight

I’m not writing this post to investigate Scott Hutchison’s pain. He clearly suffered from depression, and it killed him. It is a terrible, sometimes lethal disease that has touched many people close to me, but Hutchison isn’t my proxy for writing about it. No, I want to write about this album because, as gut-wrenching as it is to lose someone, it’s worth celebrating what they gave us when they were here, and The Midnight Organ Fight is an achievement worth every accolade.

It’s a very Scottish album. It’s not so much the mentions of the Forth and Scottish rain — specific Scottish references are quite infrequent, really. It’s more in Hutchison’s delivery, the strong Glaswegian accent that gives such a strong flavor to phrases like “put the brakes”, and “how things used to be”, and “like they did in ’43”, just to pick a few examples from the lovely song “Old, Old Fashioned.” It’s the fantastic images — the dancing partner from “The Twist”, the love buried in snow from “Poke” — with a distinctly Northern feel. It’s the diction, phrases like “sexy clothes or graces”, “just rattling through life”, or “I’ll stow away my greys.” I’m a bit of a Scotophile, so the whole thing has a vibe I just love.

There’s so much anguish in this collection, and so many perfect expressions of it. “I might not want you back, but I want to kill him.” “I’m working on erasing you / I just don’t have the proper tools / I get hammered, forget that you exist / There’s no way I’m forgetting this.” “If someone took a picture of us now they’d need to be told / That we had ever clung and tied / A navy knot with arms at night / I’d say she was his sister but she doesn’t have his nose / And now we’re unrelated and rid of all the shit we hated / But I hate when I feel like this / And I never hated you.” “Well, I crippled your heart a hundred times / And I still can’t work out why.”

Every time I start quoting it, I want to quote the whole thing, which doesn’t exactly qualify as writing about an album. So let’s just posit that this is a nearly perfect breakup album, and instead focus on a couple of outliers. “Keep Yourself Warm” isn’t a divorce song — instead it focuses on the dizzying rush of lust as two people throw themselves at each other. This isn’t hearts and flowers territory, though — the narrator sings “I’m drunk, I’m drunk / And you’re probably on pills / If we both got the same diseases / It’s irrelevant, girl.” And at the end of that hormone race, he’s left only with a little hard-won wisdom: “It takes more than fucking someone you don’t know to keep yourself warm.”

My favorite song on the album, though, isn’t about love, lust, or relationships at all. It’s a song called “Head Rolls Off”, which finds Hutchison trying to penetrate the mystery of spirituality and faith. Traditional religion won’t do it for him — “Jesus,” he says, “is just a Spanish boy’s name.”

But in his own mortality, within the context of the world around him, he finds something grand and sacred:

When it’s all gone, something carries on
And it’s not morbid at all
Just when nature’s had enough of you
When my blood stops, someone else’s will not
When my head rolls off, someone else’s will turn
And while I’m alive, I’ll make tiny changes to earth

The music, stirring as it is throughout this album, reaches a higher level on this song. Guitars ring in gorgeous harmonies as drummer Grant Hutchison (Scott’s brother) channels Larry Mullen circa 1982 to drive the song forward. Frightened Rabbit songs often feel like they have an Awesome dial that gets turned up in the last 30-60 seconds of the track, and this one is no exception, as more guitar harmonies layer in and ecstatic bass holds up the whole structure. All the while, Scott Hutchison repeats the lines, “Tiny changes to earth… tiny changes to earth.”

Nature hadn’t had enough of Scott Hutchison, but he’d had enough of himself. And now he’s gone, but something carries on indeed. His bandmates and family established the charity Tiny Changes, which works to support and educate kids about mental health issues. And he leaves behind a body of work whose emotional power only gets deeper with time.

They are tiny changes to earth, but they mean more than he ever knew.

Album Assignments: Modern Vampires Of The City

The band may be called Vampire Weekend, and they may have titled their third album Modern Vampires Of The City, but just between us, I don’t think they’re really vampires. I can tell, because much of the album focuses on a couple of topics that vampires just can’t relate to: God and mortality.

I remember hearing an interview with Pete Townshend where he revealed that “Who Are You” was addressed not to his fans, or himself, but to God. Mind you, he’s said other things about it too, but this was the one that made an impression on me. I found it a pretty startling revelation, given that the song doesn’t exactly come across like a prayer. Similarly, U2’s “Mysterious Ways” could as easily be a love song as a religious paean, or perhaps the other way round.

Vampire Weekend pull off this trick a few times on Modern Vampires. “Worship You” gallops along at a frantic pace, with Ezra Koenig rattling off the verses as fast as humanly possible, addressing someone accustomed to having everything “only in the way you want it.” The chorus slows down enough to be understood, but the words are oblique enough that they could be about a deity or any elevated figure, or even a concept. Similarly, “Finger Back” tears off verse after verse about punishment and pain, but that could be relationship pain as easily as spiritual pain. The spoken aside about an Orthodox girl who “fell in love with the guy at the falafel shop” brings the two together — relationship pain caused by spiritual pain. Or perhaps the other way round.

Album cover for Modern Vampires of the City

“Ya Hey” gets a little more clear, and a lot more clever. Obviously, the title flip-flops Outkast’s “Hey Ya!”, but there’s more going on here than casual rearrangement. Check out this chorus:

Through the fire and through the flames (Ya Hey, Ya Hey)
You won’t even say your name (Ya Hey, Ya Hey)
Through the fire and through the flames
You won’t even say your name
Only “I am that I am”
But who could ever live that way?

The fire, the flames, and the “I am that I am” refer pretty clearly to the story of the burning bush in Exodus 3, which means that “Ya Hey” isn’t just Outkast in reverse. It’s Yahweh, who when asked for his name, tells Moses: “I am that I am.”

And indeed, who could ever live that way? Who could be in a relationship with someone who won’t even tell you his name? “Ya Hey” takes shape as an “I’m just not that into you” song, giving a potential lover the brush-off, except this time the suitor is the Christian god. “Ya Hey” sums up Yahweh’s dilemma: “The faithless, they don’t love you / The zealous hearts don’t love you / And that’s not gonna change.”

“Unbelievers” presents the other side of this dilemma: a narrator who can’t believe, but longs to be saved nevertheless:

Got a little soul
The world is a cold, cold place to be
Want a little warmth but who’s gonna save a little warmth for me?

Believers can warm themselves with the fervent heat of faith, but agnostics and atheists are on their own. The narrator is clearly in a relationship, but with another unbeliever, and he predicts their fates with a paradox: “We know the fire awaits unbelievers.” Of course, unbelievers don’t think that any sort of fire awaits them, and the contradiction plays into a larger theme of questioning atheism. After all, half the world believes, and how does he know which half is right? If there’s even a drop of holy water to be had, maybe belief is worth it after all?

“You and I will die unbelievers” brings the album’s religious concerns together with its other prominent theme: mortality. In “Don’t Lie”, the narrator soberly notes that “God’s loves die young”, and that “there’s a headstone right in front of you / And everyone I know.” The ticking clock of that song shows back up in “Hudson”, which tells the story of another death, and proclaims “the clock is such a drag.”

“Diane Young”, like “Ya Hey”, covers its subject with the thinnest veneer of wordplay. The verses tell a story of an out-of-control friend who keeps courting death, so anybody listening to the song knows very well that “Diane Young” is really “Dying Young.” “It’s bad enough just getting old,” the song tells us, when nobody knows what the future holds, but surely dying young is even worse.

So Modern Vampires Of The City dives pretty deep lyrically, but on a musical level it stays fun, engaging, and refreshing. It sets up a tent somewhere on the road between The Shins’ melancholy grandeur and the effervescent joy of world-music-era Paul Simon. I especially love the piano, featured on “Young Lion”, and the classical-style organ that comes out in songs like “Step.”

I’m pretty firmly in the camp of unbelievers, but I’m also long way from making peace with mortality, and this assignment is a perfect example of why. I’d never listened to much Vampire Weekend before Robby assigned me this album, and now that I have, I need to hear the rest. So there’s yet another set of experiences I have to chase down before I die. Forget Diane Young — even Diane Old will never give me enough time to hear, read, play, and see everything I want to. The clock really is such a drag.

Album Assignments: Into The Woods

On December 3rd, 1989, Robby and I attended a concert together: The Call at the Glenn Miller Ballroom on the CU Boulder campus. Now, I have been to many a concert over the decades, but to this day I count that show as one of the Top 5 I’ve ever seen. I was already a fan of the band, based on local radio play for “Everywhere I Go” and “The Walls Came Down”, but nothing prepared me for the phenomenal energy pouring off that stage, ricocheting through the audience like chain lightning. The ballroom is not big — it holds maybe 1000 people — and The Call stuffed a stadium’s worth of power into it that night. I’ve never felt anything quite like it.

They were touring on their brand new release Let The Day Begin, whose title track became their most popular song, peaking at #1 on the Mainstream Rock chart (albeit only reaching #51 on the Hot 100), but I am here to declare that the pinnacle of The Call’s staggeringly underrated career is their 1987 album Into The Woods. It’s a breathtaking artistic achievement, with one of the all-time great album sides, suffused throughout with passion, thoughtfulness, intensity, and one spine-tingling moment after another.

Here’s the sonic palette of The Call in 1987:

  • Introspective electric guitar by Tom Ferrier
  • Driving, crashing drums by Scott Musick
  • Elegiac synths by Jim Goodwin
  • Virtuosic bass and astonishing vocals by Michael Been

Been, the group’s primary songwriter, started out on guitar, then shifted to bass a few albums into the group’s career. The result is an aggressive, melodic approach to bass playing that puts the instrument in the foreground, shuffling guitar further back into the mix. Like Sting, like Johnette Napolitano, Been’s facility with the bass gives his band an anchored, thrumming style that provides deep roots for the towering emotions within his compositions.

Album cover for Into The Woods

The alchemy of this mix finds its fullest expression in the opening song of the album, and the best song The Call ever made: “I Don’t Wanna.” The opening seconds hook us with contrast, pitting a high, keening synth sound against tentative bass. Then Been’s baritone comes in with what seem like the words to an anti-love song:

I ain’t here to hold you when you cry
I ain’t here to hold your shaking hand
I ain’t here to look you in the eye
Or beg for you to understand
I ain’t gonna walk you through your dreams
Walk you through this life that we all know
I ain’t here to listen while you speak
I ain’t here to heal your broken soul

Been takes a breath, then sings an anguished question that takes the song around a sharp corner: “Am I here at all?” Suddenly, the music leaps to life. Drums propel us forward, the bass quests outward, and guitar fills in the colors. We fly into another verse of resistance:

I ain’t here to tell you what you need
I ain’t gonna take a noble stand
I ain’t here to look you in the eye
Or beg for you to understand
I can only tell you what I’ve seen
I can only tell you how it felt
When my heart is crushed so bad inside
Till I felt the hate that slowly built
I don’t wanna

Now the song is in full swing, the guitar creeping higher atop the swirling bass and drums. What is this about? “I don’t wanna” what? What is the character fighting so hard against? Is it an “It Ain’t Me Babe” song, pushing back against somebody’s idealization of him? Maybe, but what about this crushed heart? This character isn’t just giving somebody the brush-off — he’s in anguish, as Been communicates exquisitely in his rendering of the lines. So what’s happening? Listen:

I ain’t gonna watch your every move
I ain’t gonna dog your every step
I ain’t here to shape your every mood
I ain’t here to keep your secrets kept
Oh but if I held you in my arms
If I could squeeze you till we cry
I don’t wanna lose this love I feel
I don’t wanna lose this fight tonight
I ain’t gonna

And here it is. Just as the instruments take flight after the first verse, Been’s voice leaps to another level on “Oh but if I held you in my arms,” as the character’s true emotion comes to light. He wants nothing more than to hold that shaking hand, to heal that broken soul, but there is something in his way. The overwhelming love and desire he feels is smashing him into that barrier, crushing him, and yet he refuses to let it go. The drums are pounding now, a cymbal crash plummeting into huge tom hits, the guitar skating across the surface into urgent solos, the synths reaching ever higher. And the relentless bass drives more, more, more struggle, repeating the inevitable and praying for the impossible:

I ain’t here to hold you when you cry
I ain’t here to hold your shaky hand
I ain’t here to look you in the eye
I don’t want you under my command
I can only hope you feel your tears
I can only wish you’d feel the hope
I can only hope that I can see
Out beyond this skin that covers me
Oh how I wish that you were here
If I could hold you in my arms
Oh how I wish that you were mine
I don’t wanna beg for you no more

Once again, Been ratchets up the passion on “how I wish that you were here”, and finally at the end of this verse, we hear “I don’t wanna” connect with its object: “I don’t wanna beg for you no more.” Those words contain all the contradictions of the song so far, because obviously the character is doing the very opposite of begging — he’s been fighting like mad to get away from his feelings, but that refusal is a skin that covers over his true emotions, a skin that he wants to remove but that is the only thing protecting him from unbearable pain. Been is nearly shouting at this point, but he reaches his true peak in the next lines:

I ain’t gonna tell you how I feel
I ain’t gonna tell you how I feel
I ain’t gonna pray for you to love me
Because I know you will
I JUST KNOW IT!

Right after “pray”, Musick hits two enormous cymbal crashes and plays a crackling fill over “I just know it”, where Been really is shouting. You can hear the character writhing in pain as the song reaches its climax, and then Ferrier’s guitar starts playing arpeggios as a denouement, slowly winding down until the synths can descend, as our heart rates return to normal after an unbelievably intense emotional journey.

Now, it won’t do to give every song this treatment, but I wanted to go in depth on “I Don’t Wanna” so that I can explain the tremendous power of this band. At their best, they could go toe-to-toe with U2, Springsteen, or anybody you care to name in the realm of passion, emotion, and intensity. They engage with big themes, and they bring big music to match.

In “It Could Have Been Me”, Been explores the existential quandary of arbitrary fate, the notion that it is mostly chance that separates the privileged from the homeless, the dead soldier from the living prisoner. Jungle drums strain against (somehow) jangling bass to underscore these divergent paths. “In The River” starts with a dynamite bass riff (where The Call has riffs, they’re bass riffs) and dramatizes contrasts in a new way, with Been and Musick trading vocal lines. Its story of a river encompasses baptism, loss, mortality, and a literal flood that symbolizes humanity’s basic lack of control in the face of overwhelming forces. “The Woods” brings all the instrumental pieces together to paint a vivid portrait of “the night of the soul”, the title woods standing in for depression and despair whose only antidote is “the right word, said from the heart.”

Those four songs together make up Side One of Into The Woods, and it is a flawless album side. “I Don’t Wanna” is peerless, but every other song on the side hits its mark perfectly, and the whole suite of music blends together into an artistic expression nothing short of superb. Side Two is one or two steps down from this level, which is of course still amazingly great — just not quite the triumph that Side One achieves. (And yes, I’m ignoring the CD experience, because this is one of those albums that splits very clearly into vinyl sides.)

So where Side One of the album is incomparable, Side Two suffers in comparison by being merely very good. But every song on that half of the album still has its moments, many of them brought about by Been’s extraordinary vocals. “Day Or Night” bristles with energy, cresting with Been’s “I wanna know your mind’s on me,” and whenever he hits the title in the chorus. “Too Many Tears” lets Been belt out a wonderful image: “I’ve poured myself out like an old bitter wine.” In “Expecting”, Been emotes his way through a different version of the “I Don’t Wanna” dilemma, in which he waits for his lover to finally come to him, and lets the music buoy him as he sings, “Words so often fail.”

Been’s voice is as deep as his lyrics, and almost every song on this album counterpoints this voice with Goodwin’s high synths, to great effect. The contrast gives The Call’s songs a wonderful tension, the feel of a soul straining at its bonds. The exception is the last song on the album: “Walk Walk.” Synths are nowhere to be heard, and the whole things has an entirely different feel from every other song on the album — a gentle rockabilly groove that struts through the song’s central image of walking and learning at the same time. Where so many of the songs on Into The Woods enact entrapment and helplessness, “Walk Walk” is hopeful and propulsive, pushing its narrator into the future. As satisfying as The Call’s anguish has been, the hope of this last track is a welcome harbinger of a path out of the woods, into the sunlight.