2006 Year End Thoughts
He Knows He’s Not Love Stoned
hose in love are hardly in need of love songs. Only writers worry about delineating happiness, and even I have my doubts about this recollection-in-tranquility crap. Love songs are for those who pine for love; the sob sisters who stumble into relationships have enough self-congratulation to stoke their hearths.
I wasn’t in love this year. I didn’t try very hard. Celibacy ennobles past the ability to distinguish between rest and inertia. A couple of songs substituted for an absent companion, best representing a year in which I went to the disco a helluva lot more often than there were partners to accompany me. Ne-Yo’s “Sexy Love” has sentiments any high school senior would be proud to inscribe on the back covers of their biology textbooks (“She makes the back of my neck stand up”) and an onomatopoetic hook as guileless as you imagine love to be. The liner note photos adduce Ne-Yo’s own poetic aspirations (no biology texts, just spiral notebooks filled with earnest scribbling), but if I’m right he should concentrate on his melodies, which, as everyone from Beyonce (“Irreplaceable”), Mario (“Let Me Love You”), to Ghostface (“Back Like That”) have discovered, summon a vision of love that’s a hundred songbooks high. He ain’t jokin’ either. Like Smokey Robinson or Holland-Dozier-Holland in the mid-‘60s, Ne-Yo’s ubiquity suggests that for him love is essentially a lucrative chimera; a capital venture, not a muse. Although the kid’s a hard worker he’s not as clever as Smokey, but the state of R&B; balladry is such that given one of his cast-offs an attractive blank like Ciara and Rihanna could ride it all the way to the bank, even if the harmless anonymity of their voices remind us that they know as much about love and sex as the rest of us.
As delightful as that silly voice/synth “ooh-ooh-ooh” harmony was, Justin Timberlake’s “LoveStoned/I Think That She Knows” provided classy competition. Its unwieldy title does nothing to obviate the sense that Justin’s much closer to being a first-class fool in the Lionel Richie rather than the Michael Jackson vein so many critics took turns exhausting in 2002. You know—the Ritchie of “Penny Lover,” of “You Are,” of (especially) “Love Will Conquer All,” the Bill Cosby of homogenized love, able to hawk his bejeweled banalities because he looked so cute being—to quote his 1984 American Music Awards catchphrase—“outrageous” in a gold sequined jacket and purple pants, like the awful sprite from Little Miss Sunshine doing a Madonna sextease. Justin’s the same. He really thinks the rest of us have forgotten the orange perm he sported in 2000. A verse like “She’s freaky but I like it,” suggests that he’ll always wear one. I mean, really—“she’s freaky but”? The title’s the giveaway; he’s stoned on love. Sex is what you use to get love, like you use a remote control to turn on a TV, while stoned. Of course Justin is as clueless Ne-Yo—he’s packing a bowl and, in the last minute and a half of “LoveStoned,” convulsing and grunting like a geezer around a spittoon, while Timbaland steps discreetly out of the room. This is when the song’s genius section begins: a trancey guitar hook as unexpected and beautiful as Ne-Yo’s croon, over which Justin caresses a lyric with an ethereal precision worthy of 1973-era David Gilmour. Yet the hook’s adaptability is its strongest asset, as these amateurs’ cover version proves. Notice their skinny arms and parched vocals. They could be N’Sync fans. They could be girls.
The case of Green Gartside is more delicate, despite a similar nerd rep. Where Ne-Yo exploits love to reinforce notions of canonicity and Timberlake wants to make sure you see him walk into a club VIP room with Cameron Diaz, Green seems alternately bemused and saddened by an emotion that compels him to write songs which are not so much fictive scenarios as they are proposed algorithms. He’s a virtuoso, with a talent for pointillist verse that merely scans at first but acquires shades as it pools into melodies of aqueous discomposure. This suits a Welsh trainspotter whose own biography is a case study in pretending that the lines between recluse and pop star exist to prove that being Michael Jackson is a drag only if you happen to be Michael Jackson. Remember: he achieved American name recognition just once, and if you mention “Perfect Way” to a thirtysomething they’re apt to say, “Oh yeah! By the same guys who did ‘The Honey Thief’!” Scritti Politti’s White Bread, Black Beer disappointed me at first because it lacked the hysterical arrangements of 1985’s Cupid & Psyche ‘85, a record that changed urban radio (relisten to your Jam-Lewis productions) more substantially than it led anyone to pore over Derrida.
But WBBB’s beats, best appreciated whilst blasting from your laptop (Music for Misanthropes, ta dah!), unfurled with Green’s usual subtlety, each synthetic pit-pat accenting the imagist compression of their architect’s verse. I keep returning to “No Fine Lines.” “What matters now is can you reach the window sill?” he asks. Suicide? Flight? The plaintive synthesizer note following the lyric won’t budge. The song ends, and it’s only track two. Green flashes a mighty sexy contempt for the album’s last song, In a chilling display of delusional optimism that might please Lady Thatcher, Green assures us in “Robin Hood” that someday he’ll get the girl and he’ll “never ever ever go back,” his acoustic guitar underlining this kind of early ‘70s ghoulish cheer. Green is both too self-aware to mean it and not mean it, which isn’t the same as calling him insincere; his words and goose feather-fragile tenor provide convenient escapes. It’s insulting to neither artist to argue that Justin Timberlake could have performed “Robin Hood” too.
Ultimately these three artists—men, let’s remember—erect tiny monuments of moments instead of constructing helpful syllogisms. Love defeats them, or bores them; the fruitful work is done on the peripheries, where it’s safe and expectations are low. That’s how I ended 2006, I fear, hardly stoned, but immobile just the same.