Certain Songs: 90 – 86December 13, 2009 at 1:35 pm | Posted in Music, Art, Etcetera | Leave a comment
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