On Second Thought
Whipping Boy - Heartworm






for better or worse, we here at Stylus, in all of our autocratic consumer-crit greed, are slaves to timeliness. A record over six months old is often discarded, deemed too old for publication, a relic in the internet age. That's why each week at Stylus, one writer takes a look at an album with the benefit of time. Whether it has been unjustly ignored, unfairly lauded, or misunderstood in some fundamental way, we aim with On Second Thought to provide a fresh look at albums that need it.

I was 14 when Heartworm came out. I loved the singles, but it's kind of hard to imagine loving the album at 14—I mean, it's awfully adult isn't it? What awkward teenager can really relate to "I hit you for the first time today" really? They're specifically songs about an adult world, an adult problem, a lot more sophisticated than the "blah blah, why's my relationship gone to shit?" of much of what still is popular.
Edward Oculicz

I agree with Mr. Oculicz, but I'm not sure I relate to Heartworm any better now than I did when I was 18. Back then a friend in high school lent me a couple of odder mid-90s UK rock album (Longpigs, Revolver's Baby's Angry), of which Whipping Boy were indisputably the best. I still mentally connect them to that kind of second tier post-shoegaze, post-Nirvana music: The guitars are mostly just static clouds of distortion, the air is full of self-conscious dirt and darkness, they all have an ear for a good chorus and Anton Corbijn is probably directing the video for the single. But that does Whipping Boy a huge disservice, both their music (cleaner hookier, and more powerful than most of their contemporaries) and most especially the lyrics and performance of Fearghal McKee.

When other musicians, anyone from Suzanne Vega to John Darnielle to Jeff Tweedy, write about deprivation and abuse it sounds as if they're commenting on it, or maybe remembering when they suffered from it. Nearly everyone writes from the perspective of looking back or looking in; McKee is the only writer I can think of who writes like he's still trapped in the cycle, fighting to get out. When he sings “Yeah, and you thought you knew me” in “We Don't Need Nobody Else,” the song Edward quotes above, there's certainly cruelty there, and bitterness and self-loathing, but there's also surprise and the subtext is clear; he thought he knew himself too.

Heartworm isn't just about domestic abuse, mind you; there are plenty of songs about McKee's rather fraught psychological and emotional relationship with womankind. “Twinkle” opens proceedings with the self-lacerating lines “She is the air I breathe / Not too cheap for me,” and that's about as positive he gets. “Tripped” might be about a family pretending that their mother/wife didn't commit suicide, and is actually bleaker than that sounds; “The Honeymoon Is Over” ends with McKee shouting at himself:
So you remember now
What it takes to make a mother cry
You stupid boy
So you remember now
What it takes to make a woman cry
You silly boy
The only moment of respite on the first half of the album is “When We Were Young” and it sticks out like a sore thumb; it's like finding an Abba cover in the midst of The Holy Bible. A series of memories of a misspent but happy youth, it's not just empty nostalgia; the backing vocals are whispering “what might have been” with all the pain of a hundred wasted futures, and the simple optimism embodied in “Starsky & Hutch gave good TV / And Starsky looked like me” is tempered by lines like “Nobody had a past that catches up with you.” But there is/was good in the life of McKee and the lives of his friends and loved ones; that's what he's fighting for, however futilely.

I don't know Fearghal McKee's background, but this album is either him confronting the dark parts of his life and his past with monstrous intensity or else the work of an amazingly keen observer of humans who sings here from the perspective of a man trapped between nature and nurture, too intelligent to just fall into cruelty and rage but too impulsive to fully escape. Or maybe both, and it doesn't really matter; these songs work whether they are (auto)biographical or invented out of whole cloth, and his speak-sing voice is as important to their charge as the music.

And then we get “Blinded.” That “Blinded” was never a single probably didn't change anything, probably wouldn't have made Heartworm the hit it wasn't and should have been, but it still rankles. It's the center of the record, the best song, and the turning point. It feels impossibly redemptive after what's already passed, and when McKee sings “'Cause it comes clear in pictures of here / You're my fear, you're my fear” it feels (however little literal sense this makes) as if he's finally accepted that the first step to the solution is admitting he has a problem. From there we begin to get a bit of a character arc: “Personality” is a reflective ballad full of pub nonsense, “Users” a poisonous condemnation of both parties in a shit relationship that is thankfully ending, and “Fiction” a plea (“I can't control myself”) for help, for rescue from a life that doesn't work.

The last two songs are indexed onto one track, and they feel more like two parts. “Morning Rise” is the kind of song that only makes sense as an ending, McKee swearing that “when our time comes, I will know.” It's a declaration of love, a promise that he can move past the emotional squalor of the rest of Heartworm, and it would ring a little hollow if you thought our narrator believed it wholly himself. “A Natural” ends the album on a more disquieting note:

Today is not a good day for me, for today I found out I was mad... It has come to my attention that over the past year and a half I have acquired a condition known as acute paranoid schizophrenia in relation to everyone and everything I did. It gradually worsened through the year to this point of realisation that I have a twin mind.

It feels like an artificial out, although it might not be; but as McKee sings “Today is not a day for me, today / Is not for me” almost cheerfully it's hard not to think that he's getting away with it, getting himself off the hook for the rest of these songs. Either the point of view of the rest of the album was a lie or this is, and either way you're left disturbed and affected. Is the narrator brutalized or brutalizing? Sick or guilty? Culpable or not? The heartworm of the title is a parasite, something that rests within your chest and sickens you. These are incredibly powerful songs, ones that makes you feel their truth until you can't turn away, but they may or may not be lies spun by a charming bullshitter. Their power does not rest on that uncertainty, but the ambiguous nature of these songs certainly adds another layer to them.

In the middle of Heartworm's booklet, there are pictures of the four members of Whipping Boy. Three of them are typically moody and shadowed for the time, but Fearghal McKee's is different. He's pressed both hands to the sides of his face in a way that distorts it, that leaves it looking like some sort of medieval gargoyle. He looks horrified and horrifying. Like the rest of the record, it's hard to decide whether it's a prank or a genuine expression of despair, but it doesn't matter: You keep listening anyway.


By: Ian Mathers
Published on: 2005-11-08
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