“Half the shit I say – I just make it up to make you mad
So kiss my white naked ass!”
- Eminem, ‘Criminal‘
By the late 1960s, The Beatles’ creativity had reached such absurd proportions that they were even inventing meta humour. On The White Album’s ‘Glass Onion’, a pleasant but inessential psychedelic ramble, John Lennon treats his listeners to a couple of minutes of gibberish, full of in-jokes & references to old songs.
Insofar as it had a point, the song was a sneaky rejoinder to all those who overanalysed The Beatles’ music; trawling their records for messages and meaning which was always far more elaborate than the band intended. For Lennon, sometimes a song could simply be about nothing.
His mistake was typical of artists who become frustrated when their thoughts or feelings are misheard or mangled in the minds of their audience. As Roland Barthes noted, just as notions of authorship allowed artists to control how their work was received and consumed, so the idea of authorial intent gave the illusion that they could set the terms by which their work was understood.
When we entered times of mass consumption, intent became irrelevant. Like literature or film, the meaning (or meaninglessness) of songs is seldom self-evident, and the interpretations we attach to them are very often different from those the artist intends.
Meaning is not created for us, but by us, and though we can all be influenced or coerced into sharing the meanings of others, there are always times when our unguided minds will form understandings which are unusual or unique.
A quick search of songmeanings.net will demonstrate what I mean. Its users attach thousands of different meanings, memories and interpretations to their favourite songs; all of them right, all of them wrong.
‘There She Goes’ is either a love song or an ode to heroin; ‘Born in the USA’ is working class turmoil or Reaganite nationalism; ‘The Boy With The Thorn In His Side’ is either social commentary or a sardonic swipe at Morrissey’s critics. By ignoring the urge to know the intent behind each song, listeners are liberated to create meanings for ourselves. There’s nothing Lennon or anyone else could do about it.
There’s arguably no one in the history of recorded sound that has manipulated this freedom more than Marshall Mathers. Since the release in 1999 of the Slim Shady LP, the artist sold as Eminem has delighted in shocking, appalling and confounding his audience, making himself an extraordinarily rich man in the process.
The source of this confusion, this willful deception, these tens of millions of records, was Mather’s ‘Slim Shady’ alter ego; the hyper-violent, axe-wielding, horror movie manic who could mortify both liberals and conservatives alike. Mathers’ ‘Shady’ was portrayed as a demented lunatic who despised women, hated gays and fantasised over – among other things – their rape, humiliation and murder.
But an alter ego gimmick doesn’t make for a long career. Eminem perpetually contrasted the Shady villain against the more somber, restrained, ‘real’ Marshall Mathers: the doting father, the betrayed son, the mentally ill drug addict, the tortured soul. By doing so, Mathers almost created a clever way of blaming the hate & violence of his songs on ‘Shady’, whilst intimating that his more serious, less offensive material (the Stans, the Cleaning Out My Closets, Lose Yourself) were more reflective of him as a person.
Were this distinction obvious and evident, it would’ve gone a long way towards settling Eminem’s cultural worth. If the hate and misogyny of his material could simply be attributed to a fictional character, then it would’ve been possible to receive those songs in much the same way as one receives a horror movie or a novel about a serial killer. If, on the other hand, the violence and hate of the Shady villain are sourced from the artist’s own antipathies, then it’s not so much art as the mad fantasies of a deeply disturbed mind.
Whether it was accident or design, Mathers never allowed his audience that reassurance; the lines between the ‘Shady’ villain and the ‘real’ Marshall have always been blurred.
None more so has that been evident than in Eminem’s depiction of women generally and domestic violence in particular. Regardless of which character was responsible for it, Mathers’ music is uniquely misogynistic. Where other rappers would diss ‘bitches’ out of some ritualistic chest-beating, Eminem’s misogyny is specific; women are either dumb and vacuous ‘sluts’ only interested in his wealth & fame, or they’re cruel, deceptive and treacherous. Both are met with equal rage.
And yet there remains a most curious paradox. Insofar as Eminem/Mathers/Shady is the most creative and committed woman-hater his genre has ever known, he remains the only misogynist in rap to have written at least three songs against domestic violence.
On first reading, that seems a rather contrarian statement. After all, on 97 Bonnie & Clyde he raps about dumping his dead wife’s body; on the unlistenably gruesome Kim he kills her before our very ears and on the recently released Love The Way You Lie he threatens to tie her up & set the house on fire. The Fawcett Society this ain’t.
Yet the shock of hearing those songs, the controversy they caused and the concern about the effect these kinds of messages have on his young fans shouldn’t obscure the fact that Mathers succeeds in casting himself in the most despicable light.
Whether it’s the chilling calm and pathetic justifications of 97 Bonnie & Clyde, the unhinged breakdown of Kim or the conflicted, quasi-apologies of Love The Way You Lie, the same characteristics creep out of the speakers: constantly jealous, insecure, obsessive, possessive, resorting to violence every time he loses control and incapable of taking responsibility for his behaviour. Whatever else might be troubling about the messages Mathers submits in these songs, he makes one thing clear: these are the characteristics of an abuser.
But these aren’t reasons to lionise Mathers – indeed, they place his less violent woman-hating in an even more unsettling context, further suggesting that his misogyny can’t just be passed off as the ranting of his lunatic alter ego, but drawn directly from his own dysfunction.
The impossibility of distinguishing between the ‘good man’ Marshall and the ‘scoundrel’ Shady is the reason that Eminem’s artistic value remains undefined & contentious. Some see a man who highlighted & savaged the hypocrisies of pop culture & American society; others see a bully who got rich off the back of the women and homosexuals he threatened with rape, humiliation & murder. Ultimately, I suspect the final judgement will be a combination of the two: an outrageously talented rapper & a seriously flawed man who, in the end, just couldn’t decide whether he wanted to be a cartoon maniac or a serious artist.
(Image by missquitecontrary)
Does my right hon. Friend find it bizarre-as I do-that the yoghurt and muesli-eating, Guardian-reading fraternity are only too happy to protect the human rights of people engaged in terrorist acts, but never once do they talk about the human rights of those who are affected by them?
– Labour MP Kevin Hughes
“If you start to break it then people aren’t going to go. I’m sorry, but Jay-Z? No chance… I’m not having hip-hop at Glastonbury. It’s wrong.”
- Noel Gallagher
It’s the early noughties and we’re in the middle of a Great Rock Recession. After the Britpop days of plenty, indie fans are stuck on a stodgy gruel of Travis and Starsailor. ‘Quiet is the new Loud’ and that sound you don’t hear is the kids yawning themselves to death.
With such scant exciting, homemade music, the New Musical Express – that dogged tribune of indie culture – gazed across the Atlantic and started to embrace the explosion of R&B and hip hop. They wrote reverently about Timbaland & Missy Elliott, made The Neptunes the epitome of cool and even gave Destiny’s Child their front cover for a week.
Sadly, the NME’s experiment in open-minded eclecticism was short-lived; sales dwindled and the paper couldn’t afford to offend its musically conservative readership for any longer. It wasn’t long before the magazine reverted to type; excitedly announcing a ‘New Rock Revolution’ and chasing skinny trustafarians around the sidewalks of New York.
The mistake the NME made was in believing it could break the stubborn insularity of its audience. Pop tribes often seem sealed off from the rest of the cultural landscape; they talk only amongst themselves, in their own language, and define themselves as much by the inferiority of other genres as by the self-evident superiority of their own. In this environment, expecting that a Smiths fan who mocks rap ‘music’ with inverted commas will accept the value of Missy Elliott is about as fanciful as hoping that a blustering David Blunkett would accept a deal with the Liberal Democrats. Over their dead bodies.
In fact, political tribes operate in very similar ways. Each shares its own folk heroes and hate figures, writes in socially-accepted shorthand (NuLieBore! Tory Scum!) and generally accepts that any decision or utterance made by the other tribe is either misguided, deluded or malicious. The tribe is both a social circle and a comfort blanket of shared assumptions.
However, just as identifying with one pop tribe will give you a fairly shallow, one-dimensional music collection, political tribalism can be similarly self-defeating. Many of the defences of New Labour’s punitive populism were made as appeals to working class authenticity. On matters like crime, immigration, welfare, drugs and civil liberties, liberal criticisms were often dismissed as an indulgence of an out-of-touch middle class.
Whether it was Jack Straw slamming the ‘Hampstead liberals’ or Blunkett deriding ‘airy fairy libertarians’, the insinuation was clear; Labour’s liberal critics were unserious, self-serving, moneyed dilettantes with little connection to the ‘Real World’. As I wrote once before, it often felt like the party didn’t even want our votes; we just didn’t belong in the tribe.
None of this was an issue until Labour discovered that its tribe was no longer big enough to win elections. Throughout its thirteen years in government we heard various appeals from within the party to ‘reconnect’ with the middle or working classes, the unions or big business, but precious little about reconnecting with those social liberals who fled over its excessive anti-terror legislation, its treatment of asylum seekers, its abject prison system, its criminalisation of the young or its lie detectors for the jobless.
The question for whoever wins this turgid, listless leadership election is how far they are prepared to go to win these people back. Can the party’s rhetoric be shunted in a more pluralistic, inclusive and liberal direction? Will they support Ken Clarke as he tries to weed ‘prison works’ out of our political lexicon? Will they applaud Nick Clegg for securing a commitment on the detention of child asylum seekers? Will they revert back to a drugs policy based on evidence rather than fear? Or will the tribal instincts be so strong that they bark at and barrack the Liberal Democrats until any rapprochement is impossible?
But though the main responsibility for this rapprochement is necessarily Labour’s, there’s also a question to be raised of those who want the party to change but don’t want to get their hands dirty. Do we have any integrity to demand change of a party we didn’t exactly feel inspired to vote for, much less campaign for? Do we have any credibility in making those demands outside of – and often ignorant of – the local and national structures within the party? Why should our voices have prominence over tens of thousands of long-suffering, dues-paying members? It’s a centuries-old question of whether structure or agency best describes our social behaviour, and it’s not a question which will be resolved in a blogpost.
One theory about why the NME’s short-lived eclecticism failed to lift its circulation is that not enough people believed its change was real. Sure, they saw a more diverse range of artists on the cover, but maybe they suspected it was all artifice; that deep down it would remain the same stubborn tribune of indie fandom that it has always been. Perhaps the tribe’s reputation preceded it.
That’s not something the Labour Party can allow to happen. There are now millions of us for whom the only experience of democratic socialist government was the administrations of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown. They both fell short of adequate. The task of the next Labour leader is to imagine and articulate a political culture which is better than the one we have lived through, and which their predecessors bequeathed. They need to prove that their tribe (their tent, their church) can be larger, broader, more open, responsive and diverse than anything we’ve seen to date.
This isn’t about changing to win; it’s about changing what it means to win. That’s the difference between being the leader of a political movement and merely settling for manager of a political tribe.
(Image via YoungFabians)
It may be one of the more extreme examples, but this chart shows some of the frustrating disincentives against buying a film on DVD. Whatever the arguments about the morality or legality of consuming something you haven’t paid for, if piracy is not only cheaper but considerably more hassle-free than enduring a dozen unskippable anti-piracy adverts and movie trailers, it’s going to be a tempting option for a lot of people.
This isn’t to say that piracy isn’t risk-free; quite apart from the legal issues, the retail market remains the best choice if you want 100% certainty that the DVD, record or book you want to buy is of the quality you would expect. If you absolutely have to watch Avatar, you’re going to want to see it in the highest definition possible. Many music fans would wretch at the thought of listening to a Flaming Lips record at 128kb, or hearing Pet Sounds through tinny laptop speakers.
Despite this, the pirate market can still satisfy fans in ways that the retail market is incapable of doing. Let’s take the example of the prodigous & endearingly inconsistent alt.country songsmith Ryan Adams. In 10 years, Adams has released an impressive 11 full-length studio albums, but, as his fans will often remind you, it could’ve been many more. Adams’ label famously rejected a host of superb recordings – made during his songwriting peak – on the grounds that they weren’t commercial enough, thus depriving fans of the chance to hear a hours of great songs.
The great thing about the internet age is that music fans are no longer restricted to what some artistically deaf record company executive thinks you ought to hear. Recordings such as ‘Suicide Handbook’ were soon leaked and are now easily available on filesharing sites. And the label didn’t make a penny out of it. On top of that, his fans have access to loads of good quality live recordings, covers and out-of-print b-sides which otherwise wouldn’t have been easy to access.
But this extends beyond Ryan Adams and beyond music. The pirate market allows us to keep permanent copies of things the creative industries would rather we not have. You can keep an enjoyable episode of Eastenders for posterity, save an enthralling football match or share an interesting article that might otherwise be buried behind a paywall. To be a fan is to be an afficionado, and to be an afficionado means you’re always searching for that which you haven’t seen or read or heard. Thanks to piracy, our compulsion to consume new things is no longer restricted.
So it’s not just the appeal of a free record or film which sustains the piracy market, it’s the innate consumption compulsion of the fans. Unless the affected industries stop restricting what we can see and hear, and find a way of making some money out of it, piracy will retain its creative importance.
Update: From the comments, here’s xkcd:
Last night, I finally got around to watching the last chapter in David Tennant’s role as Dr Who. Unlike other people who were sad to see Tennant go or infuriated by an incomprehensible plot, what I found depressing about ‘The End of Time’ was something entirely different.
The Doctor’s last assistant was Donna Noble. At first, they seemed an unlikely couple: Donna came across as negative, insecure, loud, and a bit mediocre. Of course, these first impressions were soon blown away, revealing a woman who was funny, witty, caring and exceptionally smart.
The next time the Doctor encountered Donna, she was back to square one: still working as a temp, planning for an unenthusiastic marriage and with all that brilliance remaining dormant & untapped. For his parting gift, the Doctor gives her a lottery ticket.
When the credits started rolling, my first thought was: ‘what does it say about our society when the only means Donna has of improving her life is by getting married to someone she didn’t express much love for & being given a lottery ticket by a time-travelling alien?’
What the scene demonstrated was a profound lack of faith in the prospect for social mobility, and it’s something which is quite a recurrent theme in television. In soap operas, youngsters who start out with hopes of attending university rarely get there, and in Hollyoaks, even those who graduate from university struggle to find good jobs.
Then there’s the desperate karaoke contest of X-Factor. The open auditions for the show are a depressing affair; a parade of tuneless, delusional hopefuls whose motivation for winning seems more about money and fame than talent. You’ll often hear contestants talk about wanting to win to escape their past lives in deprived communities, and they’ll contrast footage of drab, gloomy-looking council estates with the Technicolor glitz of the show’s studio.
The nagging fear among Conservatives is that they’ll be punished politically for what they feel is necessary economically. There’s a concern that Cameron’s cuts will be seized upon by the Labour opposition and rejected by the voters. They worry that the coming election will only result in a one term Tory government.
Whilst that fear is justified, it may yet be negated by the scale of the task Labour faces if it wants to build a positive message for voters.
I think the perception both in our culture and amongst the electorate is that not only were the ‘boom years’ a house built on sand, but that they weren’t even all that good. If people think social mobility is achieved through lottery tickets, X-Factor or Big Brother rather than education, work or government policies, they’re not going to be receptive to the claim that a new Labour government could improve lives.
Entertainment and culture may be distinct from society, but they are influenced by it, and if people look back on the ‘days of plenty’ and conclude that opportunities for social mobility mobility only improved because of a talent show, they may not look too fondly on the party which was in power.
(Fat Cat; 2006)
The most distinctive thing about Nina Nastasia is her brevity. No fan of choruses, middle eights or instrumentals, most of her songs clock in at under three minutes. In lesser songwriters, this might suggest a lack of ideas, or show that her songs are underdeveloped. On the contrary, it’s the leanness of Nastasia’s compositions which lends them their power. In On Leaving, she will reel you in; sing you into silence and then cut off your supply. And she will repeat this trick on every single track.
Whilst that’s irritating on the first listen, it’s not long before you appreciate her grace, her discipline and the beautifully sparse soundscapes she fashioned with producer Steve Albini.
The biggest compliment you could pay a musician is to say you’ve never heard enough. In that respect, Nina Nastasia is beautifully cruel.
Key track: Treehouse Song
It might be this generation’s ‘Dusty in Memphis’. Before Chan Marshall released this gloriously tender, soulful piece of music, she was merely a beguiling but erratic singer whose shows could either be transcendent in their venue-shushing beauty or an awkward, rambly, intoxicated mess. As for her recorded output, it was telling that her previous best album was a selection of cover versions.
Quite what went right in Memphis may remain a secret, but The Greatest completely shattered expectations and provided Cat Power with the finest record of her career. It was an album where she departed from the brittle indie rock arrangements that had been her stock-in-trade and embraced the rich musical history of the south, teaming up with a cast of seasoned session musicians who added trumpets, organs, pedal steel and cello to her smoky-voiced reminisces. The songs themselves sung of dating game disappointments, her battles with alcoholism and that end-of-an-evening wistfulness you get when you go home to an empty house.
On The Greatest , Cat Power finally struck the perfect sound for her voice and developed a set of songs full of pathos, longing & ache. In a decade where many artists tried to update the blues for modern times, this record showed that its roots were still firmly lodged in the heart of the American South.
Key track: Lived in Bars
The Hold Steady
Boys & Girls In America
“There are nights when I think that Sal Paradise was right”, begins Craig Finn on the opening Stuck Between Stations; “boys & girls in America have such a sad time together”. The words were borrowed from another place and another time – Kerouac’s On The Road, to be precise – but the sentiment remains an evocative description of teenage drama & farce both in the United States and beyond.
They are also the words Finn uses as the theme which unifies each narrative of midwestern misadventure: the guy whose girlfriend’s gambling addiction is paying for her drug habit; the girl who’s gotten bored of her boyfriend & just wants to get high alone; the couple who meet whilst recovering in a festival’s chill-out tent. The stories are sometimes funny, sometimes sad, but never show anything less than the empathy of someone who has probably got many more where these came from.
Meanwhile, the music shamelessly pillages American rock’s storied history: there are Replacements -style guitar jams, E street piano riffs, key changes and sing-a-long choruses. In lesser hands it either be cynical or trite, but the enthusiasm this New York band puts into each perfomance (their live shows are a sensation) makes it sound both sincere and exciting.
Written when Finn was well into his thirties, Boys & Girls in America is not a soundtrack to youth, nor even an attempt to revisit it. Rather, it’s an attempt to recollect youth; to pick over what at the time may have felt momentous & dramatic and rewrite them with the benefit of experience as funny, farcical or sweetly romantic subplots to the long slog of life.
Key track: Stuck Between Stations
Let’s Get Out Of This Country
In some ways, Camera Obscura weren’t made for these times. At the decade’s end you can look at the likes of The Strokes, The White Stripes, Radiohead, Arcade Fire, Modest Mouse & Death Cab For Cutie and conclude that indie could be a commercial as well as a critical success. Their songs appeared on adverts & film soundtracks, were multiplied millions of times over the internet and they even had some low level contact with celeb mag culture.
It’s worth remembering, though, how different things were at the start of the noughties. When Camera Obscura dropped first single Eighties Fan in 2001, the indie scene was still a marginal & cultish genre which – when compared to the commercial behemoths of Britney, Eminem & Limp Bizkit – must’ve looked like the pasty, sick-looking kid in the corner. When they first arrived, the Glaswegians made the kind of music which was increasingly unloved; their quaint, bookish & polite songs about dilemmas & embarrassments were sung with quiet, reserve and almost apology. It was the kind of stuff which was raved about in the fanzines that nobody read and the twee pop club nights that fewer people were attending. If indie was going mainstream, Camera Obscura looked set to remain on the margins.
But rather than being a secret shared by a devoted few, the band’s career was ascendent for the rest of the decade. On Let’s Get Out Of This Country the band threw off their twee pop comfort blanket & the constant Belle & Sebastian comparisons and produced a record rich in energy & musicality. The production values were dramatically scaled up, with Spector esque arrangements, boistrous brass and glistening strings, whilst Traceyanne Campbell’s voice and songwriting had become much more confident, ranging from sparse, wilting laments to country-tinged swooners and even a few high-tempo romps.
Ever fond of self-deprecation, the band’s previous record was called Underachievers Please Try Harder . When they took their own advice they produced one of the best pop albums of the decade.
Key track: If Looks Could Kill
(Kill Rock Stars; 2005)
The picaresque novel (Spanish: “picaresca”, from “pícaro”, for “rogue” or “rascal”) is a popular sub-genre of prose fiction which is usually satirical and depicts in realistic and often humorous detail the adventures of a roguish hero of low social class who lives by his or her wits in a corrupt society.
There is no central character in this album. Not content to fixate on one anti-hero, Colin Meloy instead sings about a whole parade of malcontents: a ghostly barrowboy who just longs to by his love a fine robe; a writer who’s trying to rid a strayed lover from his thoughts; a sportsman who’s just been humiliated on the field and is haunted by the disappointment on his friends and family’s faces; a forbidden couple in a suicide pact.
No, instead of constructing a character for his audience to follow, Meloy invites the listener to become the picaro, venture through this richly imagined, vaudevillian world and meet all it’s varied, striking characters. Lyrically, there were few albums this decade which could match the imagination this Portland band’s third record, and it was made all the more impressive that Meloy was able to use such unique characters to speak of the more universal themes of embarrassment, sorrow, escape, revenge and love. Musically, it was all very melodic, enjoyable but unremarkable indie rock fare, but it was his skill as a storyteller which elevated his band far above the also-rans.
Key track: The Engine Driver
Brighter Than Creation’s Dark
(New West; 2008)
At the start of Drive-By Truckers’ 7th album, its main songwriters are in two very different predicaments. On the first track, Patterson Hood plays a man surveying the end of a life cut short, and counting his richest blessings: the domestic bliss of having “two daughters and a beautiful wife.” In contrast to this gates-of-heaven contentment is the ever ramshackle Mike Cooley, who we find wrestling with a gas station condom machine in “Three Dimes Down “. The contrasting personas of Patterson & Cooley – one reflective & wistful, the other witty but self-destructive – have long given Drive-By Truckers records an extra depth and bite that has kept them interesting long after their peers ran out of things to say.
But it’s not just the lyrical content that’s kept the Truckers interesting throughout their prolific decade; they’ve gradually stripped away their more garagey origins and have embraced the sounds of Muscle Shoals. The result is a record which might have lost some of the raucusness of the past, but makes up for it with the ability to express a broader range of moods & emotions. With tracks as delicately precious as “Purgatory Line“, as mournfully angry as anti-war lament “The Home Front” and as straight-up vituperative as “That Man I Shot “, Brighter Than Creation’s Dark may not not quite be the Truckers’ best record, but it is their most complex, dense and musical.
Key track: A Ghost To Most
Night Falls Over Kortedala
(Secretly Canadian; 2007)
For an album about the strangeness of love, what I remember most is its showreels of odd, eccentric images: the Friday nights spent at a drive-in bingo in the Swedish countryside; taking your sister to the ocean and making a mess of giving her advice; being introduced to the parents of a lesbian friend as her ‘lover’, leaving ‘out of office’ auto replies to unwanted emails; falling in love with a girl running an underground hair salon; spending part of your adolescence refusing to speak to another soul.
With all this idiosyncracy, you’d think Jens Lekman’s second album would be too individual for the rest of us to relate to ; that his quirks, however charming, just bear no relation to the way many of us think or live. And yet at each stage in this splendid, joyous record, Lekman’s is an utterly compelling voice. Maybe it’s due to his jokes & self-deprecation. Maybe we identify with his child-like need to be loved. Maybe it’s because everything else on this record is so amplified – the orchestral arrangements, the doomed romanticism, the detours into fucking disco – that the lyrics seem tame in comparison.
Or maybe it’s because Lekman reaches for that part of his audience which is similarly eccentric. Whilst our own tales may not be quite as tragi-comic as anything crooned over these twelve tracks, we’ve all done daft things in pursuit of happiness, we’ve all overreacted to misunderstandings, we’ve all cringed in darkened pubs about the strange young men and women we are, or used to be.
By achieving all this, on Kortedala, Lekman manages to channel everyone from Bacharach & Brian Wilson to Morrissey & Stephin Merrit: forever a dreamer about the ideal of love, and forever a pessimist about the chances of achieving it.
Key track: Shirin
Lifted or The Story is in The Soil, Keep Your Ear to the Ground
(Saddle Creek; 2002)
There is petulance, pomposity, purple prose, a lack of perspective, vanity, self obsession, naivety, navel-gazing, bed-wetting & self-indulgence. Conor Oberst was that person once. So was I. So were a lot of us. Thankfully, that’s not all there is. There’s also romance, wonderfully imagined writing, honesty, hope, friendship, medication, defiance, a burning conscience and an open heart.
Lifted can veer between extremes. It can alienate in one listen & invigorate in the next. It is ambitious, epic and uneven; it contains moments of brilliantly mature songwriting and tracks where you just want to to tell the singer to grow up. But grow up he did, and by doing so in the most public way possible, he found admirers who might otherwise have dismissed him as as just an attention-seeking sob-smith.
Fractious, unstable and powerfully imperfect, Lifted may well be the most fitting testament to growing up in this mad new century.
Key track: Let’s Not Shit Ourselves (To Love & To Be Loved)
Towards the end of his mostly abysmal Encore, Eminem boasts that he “spoke to a generation of angry teenagers whom if it wasn’t rap to bridge the gap maybe raised to be racist”. It’s a typically grandiose statement, but not without some truth to it: Marshall Mathers’ records sold to a demographic far wider than a rap audience, and there will have been many a teenager’s record collection which never included any rap music until ‘The Slim Shady LP’ dropped. If music can help introduce people to new sounds, worlds, words, cultures & attitudes, then perhaps he really did make a small contribution to racial harmony.
But if Mathers really did “break down barriers of language & races”, he didn’t do it nearly as dramatically as was heard on Bubba Sparxxx’s second album. By the time ‘Deliverance’ was released, Bubba had already been downgraded to a one hit wonder; his tune ‘Ugly’ was just a fond memory from the time when radio would play anything with a Timbaland beat. But the collaboration between Timbaland & his southern, white protege was better – and more inventive – than anything either had done previously.
Deliverance was a fusing of hip hop & country; a brew which merged Southern accents, fiddles, banjos & Skynrd guitar hooks with rapping and hip hop beats. It was an idea so brilliant you wonder why nobody had tried it before: Jimmy Mathis was an infectious hoedown which would’ve stormed any dancefloor, the title track was stirring & reflective & Coming Round managed to ruminate on themes of poverty & rural decay. Whilst Sparxxx wasn’t a particularly great rapper, he was still an interesting & compelling voice who seemed to take it upon himself to demonstrate why the ghettoes in East & West Coast rap really weren’t that far removed from the disrepair you could find in the small town southern states.
Before Deliverance , you could not find genres more different – and dismissive of each other – than hip hop and country. After Deliverance, you were left thinking they were symbiotic. Whilst Radiohead & Animal Collective may win the plaudits as this decade’s most inventive acts, nothing they have done could match the audacity of Deliverance .
Key track : Comin’ Round
Badly Drawn Boy
The Hour of the Bewilderbeast
(Twisted Nerve; 2000)
Whatever happened to Damon Gough? However did a man who won a Mercury Music Prize & produced one of the most inventive debuts of the noughties end the decade so creatively diminished that he’d been reduced to babbling drab Springsteen truisms and copying his old songs ?
For a brief moment, Gough’s versatility, subtle songwriting & rich arrangements had some of us excited that he might be Britain’s answer to Beck or Elliott Smith. His mastery of wistful folk & effervescent guitar pop, his DIY ethic and the glistening beauty of tracks like ‘The Shining’ and ‘Magic in the Air’ had us convinced that there were even better things to come.
Of course, that never came to pass, and each subsequent record has produced ever decreasing levels of joy. But however much of a creative ditch Damon Gough seems to have driven himself into, it shouldn’t detract from our enjoyment of Bewilderbeast as one of the best debut albums Britain produced this decade.
Key track: The Shining
The Undisputed Truth
Though he doubtless hates when writers bring it up, you can’t really talk about Brother Ali’s music without first mentioning the ways he’s unique. A blind, albino Muslim from Minnesota, Ali’s entire output has been shaped by the fact that he won’t fit in any of the little pigeonholes music journalists like to stuff artists into. Stridently anti-bling and about as far away from a gangsta as the rappers who like to play the part, Undisputed Truth finds Ali taking in everything from the mundane to the profound. Just his sheer enthusiasm inflates a rap about domestic bliss & assembling Ikea furniture (Ear to Ear) with almost as much joy as a gushing ode to his son (Faheem); his political tracks (Letter from the Government, Uncle Song Goddam) are fused with the fury of a street humanitarian and his description of the collapse of his first marriage (Walking Away) manages to be hurt, hopeful and honest, but never nasty. Of course, Ali’s identity and lyrical content would all be irrelevant if his rapping was poor or if he rode weak beats, but the combination of a disciplined delivery, multi-layered rhyme schemes and classy 70’s soul & funk samples mean that it’s never a toil to wade through. Never mind debating whether the best rapper alive is white or black; Undisputed Truth makes a strong case that the accolade belongs to someone who’s albino.
Key track: Take Me Home
The Dirty Three
She Has No Strings, Apollo
(Touch & Go; 2003)
One of the best gigs I’ve ever seen happened in a venue not fit for livestock, never mind humans. In 2003, the dank, humid squalour of the Camden Barfly was the setting for a sold-out secret gig by cherished Melbourne trio The Dirty Three. They’d been together for 10 years at that point, graduating from playing local pubs to being one of the premier artists in a genre which became known as ‘post-rock’. They were an absolute sensation live: Warren Ellis treated the violin as if it was sexier, more thrilling and glamourous than any guitar, and would flail and sway and thrash through each song with the zeal of a zealot. Or a madman. His between-song banter was legendary; full of mostly improvised stories about ‘real’-life events which related to the titles of their songs. If they were playing in your town, that really was the only gig in town. On She Has No Strings, Apollo, The Dirty Three were more restrained & polite, but the mix of violin, guitar and free jazz drumming still made for some achingly beautiful music. Ellis had a fondness for saying “you are never alone with The Dirty Three”, as though their music wasn’t an act of commerce – or even art – but of friendship. They were good friends to have.
Key track: No Stranger Than That
Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga
It bulges with riffs and melodies, mistakes and regrets. It insists on belligerence through the bad times and arm-flailing abandon through the good. It acknowledges character flaws, awkward moments and ill-fated embraces. It understands the routine defeats that make up life in the noughties, but encourages its listeners to make every day an act of defiance. Above all, Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga is the sound of a band empathising with its fan base, demanding they dance through the bad times and make the best of what they’ve got. That all makes for some awfully good rock & roll.
Key track: The Underdog
The Stage Names
“What gives this mess some grace unless it’s kicks, man? Unless it’s fiction? Unless it’s sweat or it’s songs?
That rhetorical question, shouted over driving guitar chords at the start of “Unless It’s Kicks”, actually epitomises this thrilling record better than any review ever could. On The Stage Names, Okkervil River manage to produce a dynamic rock & roll record which is also deeply literate; stitching together narratives about the treasures and tolls of toiling in a “mid-level band”. The hunger for attention, for love, for food and money and, yes, kicks is all narrated brilliantly, but propelled by a band which joyfully pilfers the best tricks of the American rock canon.
For all the allusions to theatre in the title, it’s a record which is far more influenced by movies than the more mannered, pondrous stage show; the words to A Hand To Take Hold Of The Scene or the incredibly clever Our Life Is Not A Movie (Or Maybe) could almost have been written by a cinematographer or screenwriter, so aware are they of the conventions, manipulations and roundabout truths of cinema. Narrating all these tales is Will Sheff, a man for whom singing doesn’t come easily: his voice is either a perpetually unsteady, off-key croon or a exorcising howl. But great rock music has never required great singers, and the fact that he has a fan in gravelly mumbler Lou Reed says a lot. In a decade where the worlds of literature & indie rock started to overlap, The Stage Names proved that you could make music which could be primal, urgent and thoughtful all at once. That’s a lot harder than it looks.
Key track: Our Life Is Not A Movie Or Maybe
Letters From Sinners and Strangers
(Signature Sounds; 2007)
It’s a record which reaks of the past. From the antiquated song titles (Heartache Boulevard; High Shelf Booze) to the old time country arrangements, Eilen Jewell’s second album wouldn’t have sounded out of place purring out of a tinny AM radio in the early ’60s, just before America discovered The Beatles, Stones & Beach Boys, and pop was changed forever. But whilst styles can flit in & out of fashion, the themes which are mainstays of country music (despair, self-doubt, heartache) have permanent resonance, and Jewell’s respectful appropriation of sounds gone by means she broaches them with understatement rather than melodrama. Much of this is down to Jewell’s voice; her retrained, matter-of-fact delivery makes the heartbreak she sings of seem mundane, even routine. And therin lies its power.
Key Track: High Shelf Booze
Stars of the Lid
And Their Refinement of the Decline
Ambience is an acquired taste; there aren’t many of us who would buy an album full of synthetic drones and not feel ripped-off. Even for those who enjoy the mind-altering, mood-changing peace and delicacy of the genre, we couldn’t listen to it all the time. Everyone needs a varied diet, and sometimes you’d rather have a good singer, a funky beat or some crashing drums & violent guitars than sit through an hour of intense laptop twiddling.
But this is a record everyone should make time for. Adam Wiltzie and Brian McBride have been sculpting beautiful sounds for some 15 years now, and this is probably their most gorgeous peace of work to date. Across its two CDs, fragments of sound drift in and out of view like a trail of slow-moving transit. The textures created are warm & serene, and the modified cellos, horns & violins all merge together to create a soothing blanket of sound. If this all sounds a bit like Music For Art Installations, you’re not wrong, but when played in the confines of a bedroom, it can be a glorious and strangely moving listen.
We Got It 4 Cheap (Vol 2)
At the start of the decade, Clipse were the darlings of rap. Their collaborations with The Neptunes had managed to merge high experimentalism with commercial appeal, and they’d even bagged a spot on Justin Timberlake’s first single. But then, as often happens, conflict arose with the record label, release dates kept getting knocked back and the group were consigned to semi-obscurity.
So Pusha-T and Malice went back to the mixtape circuit, enlisted Philadelphia rappers Ab-Liva and Sandman and produced a series of mixtapes as the ‘Re-Up Gang’. Like the other two volumes, We Got It 4 Cheap rode a bunch of well-known beats and featured Clipse’s tales about their former lives as drug dealers. It’s a lesson in how to produce a perfect mix-tape: the beat choices are excellent, the MCs are hungry to outdo each other on every verse and they often to a better job of the track they cover than the rapper who first had it. It’s a record by men whose time in major label wilderness had left them craving for respect, and by the time listeners had discovered this fierce, pulsating & unrelenting piece of work, their time in obscurity was well & truly over.
Key track: Hate it or Love it
Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not
It’s a shame the term ‘overrated’ is used more as a criticism of a band or artist than of the ridiculous, overwhelming hype they attracted in the first place. The Monkeys’ debut was hardly a perfect record, and there were at least a dozen albums released that year which were superior. In that context, the fawning & sycophancy from the music press & broadsheet culture supplements was embarrassing.
But when you judge the album on its own merits and ignore the hyperbole it was lumbered with, Whatever People Say I Am remains an impressive achievement. Alex Turner’s tales of scumbags, riot vans, wannabe rockstars and dodgy bouncers are brilliantly told and his lyricism could shame songwriters twice his age. But although Turner’s sharp eye and keen ear are mentioned most often, one shouldn’t forget what made the Arctic Monkeys such an exciting, attention-grabbing listen in the first place: the presence of probably the best rhythm section a British band’s had since the Stone Roses. It’s not just the fidgeting guitar lines which make tracks like I Bet You Look Good On The Dancefloor or A Certain Romance, but the ferocious drumming and hyperactive bass lines. Distinctive, dynamic and determined to subvert all the media’s expectations, the Arctic Monkeys were one of the better things to happen to British music this decade.
Key track: When the Sun Goes Down
For a record preoccupied by thoughts of love & wilderness, it’s fitting that Neko Case’s voice is like a force of nature. A gloriously versatile instrument, she can shift from a gale-force holler to a seductive, sweetheart whisper – sometimes in the space of the same song.
Backed by some of the best musicians in alternative country/rock, Middle Cyclone is both Case’s strongest collection of songs and her best produced. There’s romance and heartbreak, longing and loss, and it’s all delivered by a singer who could blow the doors from their hinges. “This tornado loves you”, she teases at the start of the record. I’ve still not figured out whether it’s a chat-up line or a warning.
Key track: Don’t Forget Me
It’s the film soundtrack John Hughes never had. Although they vary in quality and style, each of the five records produced by this French dreampop duo have been heavy with romance, melodrama and zest for life. But never before had they so studiously emulated the giddy hormonal highs you’d find in the teen movies of the 1980’s.
Apparently in thrall to the aesthetic which Richard Kelly borrowed for Donnie Darko, Saturdays=Youth is a record which evokes all the right cliches of the American Youth Movie: the graduation ceremonies, forbidden parties, cheerleaders, quiet crushes, stolen kisses & long walks home through picket fence suburbia.
Whether or not those images were ever representative of American youth – either then or now – doesn’t really seem to matter. We have the music for their imagined lives, and if that spills into our own, less perfect, less glamorous existences, then so much the better.
Key track: Kim & Jessie
There’s a special time, which only comes once a year, where music fans, bloggers & journalists all get to gather in their pubs, clubs or online communities and stage their own re-enactment of this toe-curlingly true scene from High Fidelity:
I am, of course, talking about the announcement of the nominees for this year’s Mercury Music Prize, an award which is as important to the British music scene as it is maligned by a large number of the folks who follows it. Every year you can witness the same ritual of fans quibbling with the choice of nominees, complaining that their favourite record isn’t in the mix, whinging about the perceived ‘tokenism’ of always including a folk or jazz act, or tossing around charges of ‘selling out’ to ‘the man’. The sad truth is, many of us perversely enjoy this week-long round of fault-finding, and it at least demonstrates the depth of passion people still have for individual bands & records even in an age where the monetary value of music has decreased but its availability has exploded.
But the reason the prize is criticised isn’t just driven by pedantry, fandom & snobbery (though they all abound at this time of year), and I think there are valid questions to be made about whether the prize should really be sustained in its current form.
The Mercury Prize is still the most prestigious and high-profile award for independent or alternative music, but it’s seeking to represent a field which has grown dauntingly large. The folks complaining about Glasvegas or Kasabian being on the list aren’t doing so soley because they think those acts are a bit rubbish, but because they can think of two, four or ten acts who would all be more deserving of a nomination. Indeed, there are a great number of artists who’d have a right to feel aggrieved at not being on the shortlist: The Super Furry Animals‘ 9th record was a typically creative return; Camera Obscura produced a lovely album of doomed-love pop songs; James Blackshaw underscored how he’s one of the most talented composers in the country; there were great folk albums by Emmy the Great, Caroline Weeks & Blue Roses, some filthy punk from Future of the Left and the best Manic Street Preachers LP in over a decade. Even now, someone might come along and chide me for missing someone out, and they’d be right. The point is that the size of the shortlist belies the extent of the quality & creativity in the British music scene, and as such isn’t doing enough to either represent or promote it.
They don’t claim to be representative, of course – merely to pick the best albums of the year – but that too is part of the problem. The insistence on diversity of genre on the Mercury judge’s part is admirable, but has the consequence of limiting the public’s knowledge of those genres to what they stick on the list every year. I’m not even sure Lisa Hannigan’s record is even the best folk album of the year, let alone an album of the year, but it’s the only folk album on the shortlist. Likewise, most people will never know if there’s any British jazz/soul/rap which is as good or better than Speech Debelle‘s delightful debut, because by including only one example from that genre, you’re not encouraging further exploration or curiosity.
If it really wants to represent the breadth & diversity of British alternative/independent music, the custodians of Mercury Prize would do well to quit fetishising the one award it hands out and become a lot bigger. By all means offer a prize for best album of the year, but why limit it to that? Why not also have a Mercury Prize for different genres; for folk, jazz, rap, modern classical & maudlin whiteboy indie? Given the extent to which the Mercury Prize is trusted as an endorsement of an album’s quality, it surely couldn’t hurt to spread its endorsements further, for by doing so, you might well succeed in hooking the public up to even more sounds they otherwise would not have heard. Maybe then we’ll see a little less sniping over who is/isn’t on the list, and a little more celebrating about the fantastic stuff we produce.
Blame Reagan for making me into a monster
Blame Oliver north and Iran-Contra
I ran contraband that they sponsored
Before this rhyming stuff we was in concert
Jay-Z – ‘Blue Magic‘
First, I might as well endorse Ben Thompson’s positive review of the new, ‘implausibly impeccable’, Mos Def record. It’s been 10 years since Dante Smith’s exceptional debut, and in the intervening years he’s seemed more interested in his acting career than mouthing rhymes into a microphone. For that reason, The Ecstatic is an unexpected delight. Musically & lyrically, it’s the most enthusiastic, eloquent & interesting thing he’s produced since Black On Both Sides and should be regarded as one of the best hip hop records of recent years.
But as good as that album is, this post isn’t really about that. Instead, I want to discuss an incident which Thompson briefly refers to in his review; an awkward, awful exchange between Smith and Christopher Hitchens on HBO’s Real Time with Bill Maher:
Obviously, neither of the two men covers himself in glory here. Smith’s habit of repeatedly proclaiming – and then defending – his ignorance about Al Qaeda & the Taliban (to the point of mixing the two groups up) is cringe-makingly embarrassing, and Hitchens is at his sneering, condescending worst, delighting in dishing-out put-downs to someone he clearly considers an intellectual inferior. But Mos Def certainly isn’t the idiot Hitchens assumes him to be; whilst wasn’t lucky enough to go from private schooling to Oxford and then various journals of world renown, he is a dextrous rapper, a fine actor and a man who can speak eloquently on a number of subjects – just not the beliefs of Islamic militants. For a kid from public housing in Brooklyn, that ain’t half bad.
But what I found interesting in Smith’s contribution was the parallel he offered between these Islamic militants and the case Assata Shakur. Shakur was a political activist and Black Panther who was indicted of 10 crimes throughout the 1970’s, including robbery, kidnapping, attempted murder and murder. She was eventually convicted of murdering a state trooper at the New Jersey turnpike, but has always denied the charge. Her defenders insist to this day that she was a political prisoner of the United States and – years after escaping from prison – she successfully claimed political asylum in Cuba. Rightly or wrongly, she is still widely celebrated as a living martyr for black emancipation, and her life story is cited as ‘proof’ of the federal government’s mistreatment of African Americans and why the state shouldn’t be trusted.
What I think Smith was trying to get across – with difficulty given the rude belligerence of Hitchens – was that the people from his community who believe Assata Shakur was a political prisoner won’t automatically believe the federal government and media when they describe Islamic terrorists as a mortal enemy. With such a history of grievance about how the levers of power have been pulled against them, distrust of the state can be a reflex reaction, and that can occasionally lead you to some pretty unorthodox – and sometimes unsavoury – positions.
I think he’s wrong, of course: Osama Bin Laden is no Assata Shakur, Al Qaeda are no Black Panthers and the ideology, aims and practices of bomb-throwing Islamists are infinitely more deadly, malevolent and morally debased than anything the Black Panthers did to advance their own goals. But by inviting that comparison, Mos Def does (albeit inadvertently) demonstrate that the distance between a government and a deprived, disenfranchised community allows for the growth of conspiracy theories as a way of explaining the world around them.
The conspiracy theory is something Mos Def should know plenty about, for they abound in his realm of hip hop. Listen to a few rap albums and it won’t be long before you find an ‘interesting’ interpretation of history: the Jews’ role in black oppression, the CIA flooding the ‘hood’ with heroin, giving black people HIV, killing Tupac & Biggie, or George W. Bush being responsible for 9/11. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that this wealth of crank theories happens to originate from people who’ve lived in some of the most isolated & impoverished communities in America.
There are many different explanations for why conspiracy theories form and how they spread, but I think the most important cultural/political aspect is how they’re often reactions from peoples or communities who feel distanced from & distrustful of the establishment. If you reduced that amount of alienation, you’d probably reduce the number and the power of these strange alternate histories. In the end, if you feel so powerless, the government must seem a hell of a lot more powerful than it actually is.
Update: Lou Perez wrote about the same incident a while back and has some interesting thoughts.
In his writing persona, Steven Wells was many things: scenester, poet, self-important prick, cynic, idealist, embittered old Trot, the best music scribe of his time and the last punk alive. He’d write about the things he loved (multiculturalism, heavy metal, high fructose pop, socialism) in the same style and with the same searing intensity as those things he hated (fascists, Belle & Sebastian, trendies, Travis), and when he was at his best, there was no one who could write such a riot of words.
Not that you should mistake him as just an obnoxious agitator. As the internet proved long ago, anyone can create their own blog, come home drunk and dribble an artless stream of expletives into cyberspace (indeed, some write the country’s biggest blogs). No, Swells’ rage was directed, focused, positive.
In a crowded & often confounding cultural landscape, Wells objected to the country’s dwindling music press being saturated by the safe-sounding snooze-music of middle class sophists who took themselves and their student union ennui way too seriously. He hadn’t the time for equivocation, ambivalence or nuance; he wanted belief, sweat, and arm-flailing abandon. For him, ‘nice’ was an adjective of despair; ‘riot’ was a state of ecstasy.
In search of these elusive qualities, he’d slaughter his own magazine’s sacred cows, hammer some hot new artist & hype the kinds of bands that nobody but him believed were deserving of rapturous write-ups. He could be gloriously right, he could be hideously wrong, but he was always deliciously entertaining. He just gave a fuck.
All of which is probably the kind of gushing professional eulogy that the man himself would’ve hated; dismissed as pompous, middle-class, say-nothing simpering. So rather than work myself into even more of a lather, I’ll end this with the last recorded words from the man himself, and his final dispatch for the Philadelphia Weekly:
And of course all this bollocks is written by an idiot who has polished his image as an existentialist, atheist hard-man and anti-mope, forever sneering at the tribes who wallow in self-pity — the gothers, the emo kids, the Smiths fans — the whole 900-block-wide marching band composed entirely of the white male urban middle classes who are convinced that (as the most affluent and pampered human beings who have ever walked the planet) theirs is a story worth hearing. Blissfully unaware that they are but a few generations away from regular visits to the doctor who would wind parasitic worms from their beer bloated assholes using sticks. (Check out the AMA logos, those smiling beasts are not snakes.)
You could blame this fallacy on poor education, cultural deterioration, or simple moral decline.
Me? I blame it on sunshine. I blame it on the moonlight. I blame it on the boogie.
Whenever it comes to writing blogposts in memoriam, there’s always the risk of slipping into cliche or mawkishness. This is especially true of artists, because it’s often hard to separate the cherished works they left behind from the singular, imperfect being who created it. I didn’t know Jay Bennett; like most people, my only exposure to him as a person was in a documentary that many feel didn’t reflect his better self. Nor do I know enough of his work to give a full assessment of all the music he produced in those tragically curtailed 45 years.
No, like a thousand sniffling indie kids who’re now rummaging through their record collection or penning their own tiny tributes, the reason I write this is to acknowledge his role in producing three of my favourite albums. When Bennett joined Wilco in 1994, he’d become part of a band which, for all its tuneful alt. country racket, lacked any real musical depth. In the years that followed, this prodigious multi-instrumentalist struck up a songwriting partnership with singer Jeff Tweedy which represents some of the band’s best material and led to greater critical & commercial success with each succeeding album. This all culminated in the quite magnificent Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, a superb melding of traditional American songcraft with experimental production: shortwave radio samples, bursts of noise, subtle flashes of feedback & dischord. From the songs he helped write to the wide range of instruments he played, Bennett’s fingerprints are all over that record, and regardless of the break-ups, lawsuits & health problems which followed, it stands as one of the great albums of the decade & a piece of work any musician would be proud of.
At this point, there’s not a great deal more that needs to be said, so I’ll leave you with three videos catching the band at their best. The first is a clip from the documentary which detailed Bennett’s departure from Wilco, but catches them here in less conflicted times. The second is the video to Jesus Etc, which Bennett co-wrote and stands as one of their best tunes, and another catches him on the keyboards during a live performance.
In the world of popular music, being called a Tory remains as hurtful as having your band compared to Ocean Colour Scene. Just leaving aside the number of songs strummed against Thatcher or pop’s role in movements against war and racism, the word ‘conservative’ isn’t just laden with assumptions about your politics, but about the music you make. For decades now, the word’s been used to infer that the art you produce is corporate, pro-establishment, staid, formulaic and conformist. In short, if you’re a Tory, you definitely don’t rock.
So when Jarvis Cocker gave an interview to GQ magazine where he seemed to say that a Conservative government wasn’t just inevitable but ‘necessary’, it wouldn’t be long before it was followed by a carefully-worded clarification. “In no way am I supporting or suggesting that a Conservative government is a good thing, far from it,” Cocker states. “Rather, what I intended to get across was that, in the absence of any real alternative, a Conservative government at this point unfortunately seems inevitable.” I think it’s safe to assume that he isn’t turning into Bryan Ferry.
This is comforting because, as Sunder notes, Cocker’s work with Pulp did much to keep class in the public consciousness at a time when it was being written-out of the rhetoric of New Labour and barely noticed by a Britpop crowd which was getting high off the hype of ‘Cool Britannia’. But what made the band’s records as interesting as they were cherished was that there was much more complexity to their themes than you’d find in the simplistic tubthumping of most political music.
There’s no denying that the social commentary in Pulp’s songs had its share of revolutionary sentiment. On Different Class’ ‘Mis-Shapes’, he conjures the image of a disadvantaged people rising up to claim what they feel is theirs (“Just put your hands up, it’s a raid! We want your homes. We want your lives. We want the things you won’t allow us”). Likewise, in ‘I Spy’ he voices a wronged working class man who seethes with contempt for his bourgeoisie ‘betters’ and plots his revenge (I can’t help it: / I was dragged up / My favourite parks are car parks / Grass is something you smoke / Birds are something you shag / Take your Year In Provence / and shove it / up your arse).
But there’s also the strong sense in Cocker’s lyrics that his isn’t a politics which relies on a state bestowing better lives on its people, but where the people sieze the means to achieve change for themselves. This comes across most strongly in This is Hardcore’s “The Day After The Revolution”, where he tramples on the old lie that “the meek shall inherit the Earth” by spitting “The meek shall inherit absolutely nothing at all / if you stopped being so feeble you could have so much more” and telling his listeners that “the revolution begins & ends with you”. His belief in the untapped potential of the working class is also striking in the preceding “Glory Days”, where he laments “Oh, we were brought up on the space race / now they expect you to clean toilets / when you’ve seen how big the world is / how can you make do with this?”. If he sometimes comes across as scornful of indolence & sloth (such as on this song and Different Class’ “Monday Morning”) it’s more out of frustration at this potential going to waste.
But if I could pick one song which I think best encapsulates Cocker’s worldview and his weary, remorseful outlook on British politics, it would be found on one of Pulp’s lesser known efforts. The last song the band ever released was a footnote to their Greatest Hits collection called “The Last Day of the Miner’s Strike“. Based on a reminiscence of industrial unrest in the 1980’s, it’s a song which could be read as either an anthem or a lament; a dream of what might’ve been possible “if we just stick together” or the reality of what was lost in the decades since their failure. “The last day of the miner’s strike was the Magna Carta in this part of town”, he sings, hinting that futures are now fixed, that possibilities are narrowed and alternatives reduced. Labour or Tory. Tory or Labour. Switching from one colour to the next without ever really expanding the palette.
No, Jarvis won’t be wearing a blue rosette any time soon, but Labour should still take the time to ponder why he, and many progressives like him, doesn’t feel at home in either party.