Top Ten Divides between Music and Lyrics
vaguely recall watching a bit of Triumph of the Will in a history lesson as a youth. Remembering things that happened more than fifteen minutes ago isn't my strong point, so the specifics are lost to me, but there were a lot of striking images—the Luftwaffe tearing across the sky in full force, Adolf doing a cheesy double-fingered point to the camera and smirking—accompanied by beatific, emotionally manipulative music. I'm not outing myself as one of those sinister Nazism buffs here, so much as recalling that a carefully chosen combination of images and sound can have an astonishingly overwhelming effect on the human brain, no matter how reprehensible the ideology they're used in service of.
Anyway, these things are supposed to be a bit of light-hearted fun at the end of the week, so forget about Nazis, and think about Luke Haines instead. Haines has been one of my favourite songwriters for a long time, largely because of his sullen demeanour and mean-spirited sense of humour; a recurring theme throughout his work is his ability to write these extremely well composed, pleasant sounding songs that are overlaid with subtly (or not so subtly) mocking lyrics. This sort of thing often gives rise to metaphors about eating a delicious cake and finding a razorblade inside it, but it only really works if you stipulate that it's a cake so compulsively delicious that you want to keep eating it.
So yes: need for a reasonably snappy title notwithstanding, this is intended to be regarded as the Top 10 Songs with an Apparent Divide between Musical and Lyrical Content That Nonetheless Combine to Create an Uneasy Cocktail of Ostensibly Conflicting Emotions (That I Have Heard (And Can Be Bothered to Write About).).
Sparks - Change
A central pillar of Sparks' enduring genius is their ability to invest ridiculous subject matter with a sense of absurd, scarcely appropriate drama. Remember: this is a band who've managed to make exhilarating art-pop records about subjects as diverse as tits, pineapples, and a doomed anthropomorphic cigarette. Here they turn their hands to the more traditional jilted lover scenario, outlining a sad tale of a slightly yuppie-ish man who "feels like a dog that's been kicked out into the street." Then he progresses to cautious, bloody-but-unbowed optimism, decides to stop caring about love, skis a lot instead, and eventually returns to good old-fashioned denial ("I've been thinking we'll get back together again someday"). The chorus delivers the reassuring sentiment that "every dog is gonna have his day, every loser's gonna have his way" in a comically jaunty marching band fashion, but in the right mood it can actually seem quite touching.
Ghostface - Biscuits
Ghost set out his stall early on Pretty Toney, eager to reassure You that while he no longer covers his face and has revealed his real name, he will still totally fucking kill You if you mess with him. Thing is, those plaintive horn stabs invest the tale of Taking All Your Shit with a degree of pathos, and his voice has a quavering, hysterical edge that furthers the ambiguity. It's not that the threats are unconvincing, you understand—he probably will kill You, but there's a chance he'll cry afterwards too.
Fad Gadget - Back to Nature
I suppose with this whole concept there's a chance you'll be projecting some imagined idea onto the music yourself, but this record has always seemed to me to have a strangely euphoric quality to it. Sure, it sounds menacing, and Frank Tovey's characteristically acerbic description of an entirely sanitised, artificial world is pretty bleak, but when it builds up the tension to that massive release of "I'll kiss you and you'll...KISS ME" and those soaring synths kick in, for a few seconds it just sounds bizarrely ecstatic.
R Dean Taylor - Indiana Wants Me
There's an ominous police siren at the start of this that foreshadows the proceedings somewhat, but if you only half pay attention after that, it's a very pleasant, summery pop song, with R's croon reassuringly like Your Dad—why, he's gonna be home to see you soon, Junior, and he might just've managed to get hold of that skateboard you wanted, so—oh hang on, there's the siren again, and some gunshots, and yeah he was pretty much on the run for murdering somebody who insulted Your Mother and now he's dead. That's a bit of a downer.
The Comsat Angels - Be Brave
Sleep No More can be an intense experience even in a single sitting, so the occasional sliver of relief is welcome. "Be Brave" works up an amazingly threatening atmosphere almost entirely through a groaning two-note bassline and Steve Fellows' paranoid enquiry "can you hear it whispering, at the back of everything"; these verses conjure up what may be the most oppressive sound on the entire album, but the chorus marries a fragile, arpeggiated guitar line to the cry of "out of the dark, into the light, looking for a way round it / When it calls we won't hear, we will shout and we will drown it out." There's a kind of out-of-place graceful beauty to it that suggests that deep down there is some surviving belief in a light at the end of the tunnel; the scary bass noise pounds it into submission again soon after, but it was there for a second.
Eno - On Some Faraway Beach
Meticulously develops a strong sense of safety and tranquility, layering keening harmonies over the plaintive little piano riff. After the song's subtly increased in stature for two minutes, the first line is "given the chance, I'll die like a baby on some faraway beach." Dying alone and forgotten forever sounding this reassuring is somehow incredibly creepy. In the wider context of Here Come The Warm Jets, it also serves to introduce that vaguely unsettling feeling that sets you up nicely for being properly weirded the fuck out by "Blank Frank."
The Smiths - Some Girls Are Bigger Than Others
Ah yes, a silly, flippant afterthought that ends The Greatest Album Ever on a low and detracts from the humbling beauty of "There Is a Light That Never Goes Out." Or something. The lyrical nonsense here acts as a timely reminder to all the kids who took the foregoing 33 minutes a bit too seriously that life isn't thaaat bad, but it forms a weird union with the mopey backing track, and when Marr's chiming guitar coda appears at the end it makes for a more ambiguous, evocative ending than its forebear's misery would have allowed.
Shangri-Las - Leader Of The Pack
Firmly in the 60s girl-group vein of perfect pop songs with a hefty side order of melodrama; at the start, the motorcycle revving acts as a cute sound effect alongside the talk of meeting in a candy store, but by the time the full tragedy has unfurled, the poor Leader has been driven away to his untimely end, and the revving now soundtracks a combination of grief and steely determination to honour The Boy's memory. They Don't Make ‘Em Like This No More.
For Against - Coalesced
This has been a bit of a recurring obsession in the past year, admittedly, which has something to do with me perpetually struggling to work out exactly why the ludicrously repetitive guitar motif that closes it is so compelling. "Coalesced" is the title track of an extremely emotionally exhausting album where Jeff Runnings flits between various states of intense loneliness and romantic bliss; the specifics are a mystery if you're not him, but it's almost uncomfortably, nakedly emotional and you piece together the impression it involves a vaguely unhealthy, co-dependent and entirely doomed relationship that neither party can quite bring themselves to get out of. In that sense it's possibly a bit like "With Or Without You" if it wasn't ridiculously bombastic and a covert metaphor for being bummed by Christ. The chorus is a loping epic where he makes his declaration of undying love in a painfully earnest, frail voice; after the final instance the vocals just drop out, leaving the aforementioned guitar figure to take over and carry the thing off into infinity.
Black Box Recorder - Child Psychology
Perhaps Luke Haines' crowning achievement in this field is this 1998 Black Box Recorder single, wherein Sarah Nixey robotically talks us through her unhappy childhood over an almost suffocatingly saccharine mix of tremolo guitars and xylophones. Course, as that strangely beatific chord sequence trots out on the chorus, Mr Haines and Mr Moore join Ms Nixey for a rousing chant of "life is unfair, kill yourself or get over it." Somehow this manages to eventually snowball into some kind of warped, almost empowering sing-along. Perhaps they are offering sensible, galvanising advice in characteristically stern, terse fashion—pull yourself together, you're not really going to kill yourself—or perhaps they are sincerely trying to encourage the more Oberst-like among us to stop dithering and just die already. Perhaps they are taking the piss. An entirely noble endeavour regardless, but perhaps particularly so for the latter—sometimes you've just gotta laugh, y'know?
By: Fergal O’Reilly
Published on: 2006-05-12